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Nausea and Vomiting

Definition, Description, Causes and symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, Alternative treatment, Prevention

Nausea is the sensation of being about to vomit. Vomiting, or emesis, is the expelling of undigested food through the mouth.

Description

Nausea is a reaction to a number of causes that include overeating, infection, or irritation of the throat or stomach lining. Persistent or recurrent nausea and vomiting should be checked by a doctor.

A doctor should be called if nausea and vomiting occur:

  • after eating rich or spoiled food or taking a new medication
  • repeatedly or for 48 hours or longer
  • following intense dizziness

It is important to see a doctor if nausea and vomiting are accompanied by:

  • yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes
  • pain in the chest or lower abdomen
  • trouble with swallowing or urination
  • dehydration or extreme thirst
  • drowsiness or confusion
  • constant, severe abdominal pain

These illustrations depict the mechanism and causes of vomiting in the human body. An impulse from the brain stimulates the vomiting center (top center) in the brain stem. Nerve impulses sent to the stomach, diaphragm, and abdominal wall (bottom center) result in stomach's contents being expelled. Other causes of vomiting include raised pressure in the skull due to injury or tumor (upper right), and hormonal changes during pregnancy. (Illustration by John Bavosi, Custom Medical Stock Photo. Reproduced by permission.) These illustrations depict the mechanism and causes of vomiting in the human body. An impulse from the brain stimulates the vomiting center (top center) in the brain stem. Nerve impulses sent to the stomach, diaphragm, and abdominal wall (bottom center) result in stomach's contents being expelled. Other causes of vomiting include raised pressure in the skull due to injury or tumor (upper right), and hormonal changes during pregnancy. (Illustration by John Bavosi, Custom Medical Stock Photo. Reproduced by permission.)

  • a fruity breath odor.

A doctor should be notified if vomiting is heavy and/or bloody, if the vomitus looks like feces, or if the patient has been unable to keep food down for 24 hours.

An ambulance or emergency response number should be called immediately if:

  • diabetic shock is suspected
  • nausea and vomiting continue after other symptoms of viral infection have subsided
  • the patient has a severe headach.
  • the patient is sweating and having chest pain and trouble breathing
  • nausea, vomiting, and breathing problems occur after exposure to a known allergen.

Causes and symptoms

Persistent, unexplained, or recurring nausea and vomiting can be symptoms of a variety of serious illnesses. It can be caused by simply over-eating or drinking too much alcohol. It can be due to stress, medication, or illness. Morning sickness is a consequence of pregnancy-related hormone changes. Motion sickness can be induced by traveling in a vehicle, plane, or on a boat. Many patients experience nausea after eating spoiled food or foods to which they are allergic. Patients who suffer migraine headache often experience nausea. Cancer patients on chemotherapy are nauseated. Gallstones, gastroenteritis and stomach ulcer may cause nausea and vomiting. These symptoms should be evaluated by a physician.

Diagnosis

Diagnosis is based on the severity, frequency, and duration of symptoms, and other factors that could indicate the presence of a serious illness.

Treatment

Getting a breath of fresh air or getting away from whatever is causing the nausea can solve the problem. Eating olives or crackers or sucking on a lemon can calm the stomach by absorbing acid and excess fluid. Coke syrup is another proven remedy.

Vomiting relieves nausea right away but can cause dehydration. Sipping clear juices, weak tea, and some sports drinks help replace lost fluid and minerals without irritating the stomach. Food should be reintroduced gradually, beginning with small amounts of dry, bland food like crackers and toast.

Meclizine (Bonine), a medication for motion sickness, also diminishes the feeling of queasiness in the stomach. Dimenhydrinate (Dramamine), another motion-sickness drug, is not effective on other types of nausea and may cause drowsiness.

Alternative treatment

Advocates of alternative treatments suggest biofeedback, acupressure and the use of herbs to calm the stomach. Biofeedback uses exercise and deep relaxation to control nausea. Acupressure (applying pressure to specific areas of the body) can be applied by wearing a special wristband or by applying firm pressure to:

  • the back of the jawbone
  • the webbing between the thumb and index finger
  • the top of the foot
  • the inside of the wrist
  • the base of the rib cage

Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) or lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) tea may relieve symptoms. Ginger (Zingiber officinale), another natural remedy, can be drunk as tea or taken as candy or powered capsules.

Prevention

Massage, meditation, yoga, and other relaxation techniques can help prevent stress-induced nausea. Antinausea medication taken before traveling can prevent motion sickness. Sitting in the front seat, focusing on the horizon, and traveling after dark can also minimize symptoms.

Food should be fresh, properly prepared, and eaten slowly. Overeating, tight-fitting clothes, and strenuous activity immediately after a meal should be avoided.

Resources

BOOKS

The Doctors Book of Home Remedies. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, 1990.

The Editors of Time-Life Books. The Medical Advisor: The Complete Guide to Alternative and Conventional Treatments. Alexandria, VA: Time Life, Inc., 1996.

OTHER

"Nutrition Tips for Managing Nausea and Vomiting." Mayo Clinic Online. 5 Mar. 1998 <http://www.mayohealth.org/mayo/9709/htm/eating5.htm>.

Maureen Haggerty

KEY TERMS


Dehydration—Loss of fluid and minerals following vomiting, prolonged diarrhea, or excessive sweating.

Diabetic coma—Reduced level of consciousness that requires immediate medical attention.

Additional topics

Health and Medicine EncyclopediaHealth and Medicine Encyclopedia - Vol 18