Vomiting 101: Why You Throw Up and the Best Way to Recover

When to see the doctor, when to manage it at home

Why You Throw Up

It’s that feeling you wish you’d never had. You’re suddenly queasy. Your digestive system shifts violently into reverse. And that meal you just swallowed comes back to see the light of day.

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Vomiting is definitely not fun. But it has a purpose. “Vomiting is a reflex that allows the body to rid itself of ingested toxins and poisons,” says family medicine physician Matthew Goldman, MD.

When vomiting happens fairly often, it’s important to determine why and to get it under control. “Vomiting can make people severely dehydrated, which can lead to serious complications,” he says.

“Our bodies depend on good circulation to carry oxygen and nutrients around. If there’s not enough fluid, circulation doesn’t happen. And that can be life-threatening.”

That doesn’t mean you should run to the doctor every time you vomit. But when vomiting is frequent or prolonged, you’ll need to know what’s causing it so you can feel better.

It’s a complicated process

Although it’s your belly in distress, “it is changes in your immune and/or nervous system that trigger the vomiting reflex,” says Dr. Goldman.

Neurochemicals can travel different pathways to activate receptors that start the vomiting process.

A trigger zone in your brain may pick up immune changes, or sense the presence of drugs or toxins. Or the medulla (part of your brainstem) may gather relevant information from different parts of your body. Or your vagus nerve, which runs from your brainstem to your GI tract, may signal that something is abnormal in your gut.

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But the end result is always the same: Your last meal rockets up — and out.

Vomiting has many causes

Dr. Goldman says that common causes of vomiting in adults include:

When to see the doctor

Sometimes an upset stomach is harmless. Having one episode of vomiting isn’t usually concerning, Dr. Goldman says. You throw up and then immediately feel better.

But other times, vomiting requires medical attention. “If you’re still vomiting after two days — especially if you have significant chest or belly pain — you should see your doctor,” he says.

If these symptoms accompany vomiting, seek medical attention:

  • Blood (black specks may resemble coffee grounds) in vomit
  • Black, tarry bowel movements
  • A fever of 101° or higher
  • Significant headaches
  • A stiff neck
  • Dehydration, dry mouth or excessive thirst
  • Muscle cramping
  • Dizziness or difficulty standing
  • Confusion
  • Dark urine or no urination in more than five hours

How to recover from vomiting

Make hydration your main focus after a bout of vomiting, says Dr. Goldman. Drink clear fluids (water, diluted juices, ginger ale), and eat foods that are mostly liquid (Jell-O®, clear broth, popsicles).

Ease yourself back into your regular diet with small amounts of bland foods (plain yogurt, plain oatmeal, grits, bread, crackers). Avoid fatty foods; they digest more slowly and can cause nausea. Steer clear of sugar, and sugary or caffeinated drinks, which can cause dehydration.

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It’s also helpful to avoid strong smells, which may trigger your gag reflex.

But don’t hesitate to see your doctor if you aren’t getting better. “If you can’t keep anything down, come in and get IV fluids and medication,” he says. “You might even need to have some imaging done to help pinpoint the problem.”

How to prevent vomiting

Implementing a few good habits can help you steer clear of vomiting in many cases.

Your best defense against stomach viruses and bacteria is to wash your hands regularly. Use soap and warm water for at least 30 seconds. Scrub your fingernails, and in between your fingers as well.

To prevent food poisoning, keep tabs on expiration dates. Discard any unused food that’s past its prime.

If you get motion sickness or seasickness, take medication to stop nausea before it starts. If you feel a migraine coming on, take your headache medication at the earliest warning sign.

Finally, tell your doctor when pain is intolerable. He or she can help you find ways to minimize it. And if your medication is making you queasy, ask your doctor about alternative options.

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