Whether you call it to vomit, throw up, barf, yak, puke, hurl, or heave, one thing’s for sure: there’s nothing fun about vomiting. And as if the sensation of vomiting isn’t bad enough, it can be difficult to figure out why your body is reacting this way.
Vomiting is a symptom that’s related to a whole host of different diseases, disorders, and illnesses. Online, you will find dozens and dozens of hypothetical explanations for why this bodily mechanism was triggered.
In this article, we’ll take an in-depth look at some of the most common causes of vomiting.
When to Seek Medical Help for Nausea and Vomiting
People vomit for all sorts of reasons, but it’s the severity of the situation that should determine whether or not to seek medical help. Something like food poison is typically not anything to worry about – just let it run its course. This goes the same for bouts of motion sickness and stress vomiting.
However, there are several instances in which attending urgent care or emergency room is undeniably necessary. So, if you’re experiencing nausea and vomiting, why would you choose an urgent care center over an emergency room visit or vice versa?
Typically, if you’re experiencing any symptoms that may be considered “life-threatening,” you should immediately proceed to the ER. Anything short of life-threatening can generally be handled at an urgent care. Examples of symptoms that indicate an emergency situation are:
- Chest pain
- Difficulty breathing
- Head trauma
- Severe bleeding
- Loss of vision
- Vomiting blood
Although vomiting and nausea are never comfortable, there’s a sizeable difference between a life-threatening symptom and the overall discomfort of retching. Unless your vomit shows traces of blood, you can likely seek medical care at your local urgent care rather than the ER.
What Happens When We Vomit?
Humans are actually one of the few mammals that vomit in nature. Depending on the condition or cause, the brain sends a signal to the diaphragm and the stomach which propels the food up the esophagus and out the mouth.
As defined by VIVO Pathophysiology, vomiting is:
“the forceful expulsion of contents of the stomach and, often, the proximal small intestine.”
The uncomfortable sensation makes a person feel as if they will vomit. Scientists are not agreed upon the exact way the sensation is processed by the brain, but almost all people have experienced nausea for one reason or another. Note: nausea does not always lead to vomiting.
When the stomach contracts repeatedly in what many people describe as “dry heaving.” Physiologically, it’s spasmodic respiratory movements with a closed glottis. Unfamiliar with the glottis? It’s the space between vocal cords located in the larynx.
First, a deep breath is taken, the glottis closes, and the larynx opens the upper esophageal sphincter. Second, the diaphragm contracts to create negative pressure, opening the esophagus. Then, abdominal muscles are contracted and pressure within the gastric system becomes intensified. This clears the passage for the stomach’s contents to be launched up through the opened esophagus and out the mouth.
Can You Stop Yourself from Vomiting?
It really depends on the situation. Sometimes, vomiting is a necessary bodily function that ultimately protects you in the long run. For example, consuming enough alcohol to achieve a toxic level in your bloodstream will result in vomiting. In this circumstance, throwing up is your body’s attempt to return to a non-toxic level.
Another example is when the body vomits to rid itself of a bacterial infection like E. coli.
That said, if you’re experiencing nausea due to something like motion sickness or stress, it is possible to prevent the vomiting stage.
Try some of these handy tips:
- Sit down or lie propped up
- Avoid physical activity
- Drink something sugary like ginger ale or Gatorade
- Avoid alcohol, caffeine, and acidic drinks like orange juice
- Suck ice chips or have a cold drink
- Avoid oily and spicy foods
- Practice deep breathing exercises
Fun fact: the stomach flu doesn’t actually exist. When people talk about the stomach flu or a stomach bug, they are actually talking about a virus like a norovirus. The norovirus is the most common cause of gastroenteritis. With over 19M cases a year, the norovirus is incredibly common and very uncomfortable. Oftentimes, a stomach bug leads to nausea and vomiting.
It’s a virus transmitted by touching your nose, mouth, or eyes after coming into contact with someone who carries the infection. It can also be caused by eating food contaminated with the virus.
Typically, the norovirus causes 1-3 days of discomfort until the body destroys it. It’s a common cause of vomiting, but there isn’t anything you can do other than letting the virus run its course. Make sure to stay hydrated, follow the B.R.A.T. diet, and avoid caffeine and alcohol.
If life-threatening symptoms are experienced, make sure to visit the ER as soon as possible.
Everyone has been there before. Maybe you ate some food left out overnight, or you fearlessly downed questionable sushi. Either way, food poisoning is another common cause of vomiting.
Food poisoning is a general term for one of many non-specific illnesses transmitted through food. Typically, when talking about food poisoning, we’re talking about a bacterium like E. coli, listeria, or salmonella.
The body can usually clear itself of the bacteria within 48 hours. Vomiting is usually the path to ridding itself of the bacteria, and oftentimes throwing up is paired with nausea. In some cases, you may need antibiotics which can be acquired after a visit to urgent care.
For some, reading in the car or being in choppy water can trigger motion sickness. It’s a sensation that’s triggered when there’s a difference between motion sensed by your inner ear and the motion you see with your eyes.
This discrepancy between how your sensory system perceives the world around can lead to nausea, which can then trigger vomiting.
Although we all know morning sickness and nausea during pregnancy are common, researchers are not entirely sure what causes them. The most common theory is the number of physical changes happening in the body. Between hormonal changes to stress, there is a number of causes.
Many call it “morning sickness,” but the truth is, that nausea can strike at any time during pregnancy. For some, nausea begins as early as 4 weeks of pregnancy. It’s been stated that approximately half of women who experience nausea during pregnancy feel relief around 14 weeks.
Unfortunately, nausea and vomiting are considered normal parts of pregnancy. Other than lying down and staying hydrated, you just need to let the process run its course.
Acid reflux is a condition where the body’s digestive system functions improperly. The lower esophageal sphincter (LES) allows stomach acid and undigested food to travel up your esophagus instead of closing shut. The sour taste from stomach acid can trigger nausea and even vomiting.
Oftentimes, correcting acid reflux requires lifestyle changes. Fried foods, citrus, spicy foods, caffeine, sodas, and alcohol can sometimes weaken the LES. Other lifestyle changes that can decrease acid reflux episodes include quitting smoking, elevating your head when sleeping, and not lying down after eating. Antacids can also provide immediate acid reflux relief.
Have you ever been next in line at some sort of public speaking engagement and felt queasy? Or maybe had butterflies in your stomach right before confessing your feelings to a crush? Real-world events can cause major anxiety, and that may trigger a physical reaction.
Besides social or performance anxiety, fear can cause the same reaction. And on the other end of the spectrum, extreme cases of excitement! Sometimes intense emotions can cause instant nausea and possibly vomiting. All you can do to remedy stress or nausea is to practice deep breathing exercises and drink something cold and bubbly.
Unfortunately, stress is just a part of life everyone must deal with!
Wrapping Up: Reasons to Vomit
There are so many different reasons people vomit. Typically, some sort of bodily issue leads to nausea, and nausea can lead to vomiting. Sometimes vomiting is the body fighting infection, and sometimes vomiting is the result of psychological stress.
Throwing up feels terrible, and it can make you think a situation is worse than it actually is. Even the sensation of nausea before vomiting feels awful, but nausea does not always mean you will, in fact, vomit.
When in doubt, if you’re feeling nauseous or have recently vomited, try following the BRAT diet:
- B – Bananas
- R – Rice
- A – Apples
- T – Toast
And more than anything else, stay hydrated and get plenty of rest! Don't forget about a possible chemical poisoning that can happen accidentally using household products. If your vomiting and nausea last more than 24-hours, be sure to check in at your nearest GoHealth Urgent Care center.
See our prices on co-pays and same-day visits, with and without insurance.
GoHealth Urgent Care partners with these regional healthcare providers:
- Northwell Health-GoHealth Urgent Care in New York
- Dignity Health-GoHealth Urgent Care in San Francisco
- Legacy-GoHealth Urgent Care in Portland & Vancouver
- Hartford HealthCare-GoHealth Urgent Care in Connecticut
- Mercy-GoHealth Urgent Care in Arkansas, Springfield, St. Louis & Oklahoma
- Novant Health-GoHealth Urgent Care in North Carolina
Written by Sarah Thebarge, Physician Assistant