Vomiting doesn’t really need to be defined. It’s an unpleasant impact of gastric or other distress pretty much everyone experiences it from time to time, though some more than others. By itself, it is not necessarily a symptom that requires urgent care. Indeed, it can often be beneficial and can help speed recovery or protect us from harm. On the other hand, it can also be a sign of numerous illnesses, both minor and major and should never be ignored. Below are some of the most frequently asked questions about this extremely common gastric symptom.
Vomiting, with or without the sick feeling we call nausea, can be caused by so many things it’s really hard to say. Everything from ordinary stress or emotional upset to motion sickness to stomach viruses, overeating, pregnancy, and minor self-inflicted poisoning (i.e., drinking too much) to numerous issues, serious and not so serious, can cause vomiting. It’s also true that some of what we call vomiting is actually regurgitation, when food is brought up from the stomach without the unpleasant sensations we associate with “being sick.”
The causes of regurgitation and vomiting are generally quite different but, if repeated more than one or two times in a short time span, require some looking into. (Obviously, regurgitation is a very common occurrence with infants and toddlers and, by itself, is usually nothing to worry under normal circumstances, though any changes should be discussed with the baby’s doctor.)
In general, when vomiting and/or nausea are persistent, unexplained, accompanied by other symptoms such as a high fever, or a sign of a social or emotional problem or eating disorder, swift attention is called for. In other circumstances, it’s a matter of the patient’s judgment when urgent care is called for.
Generally if there is a high fever, the vomiting is extremely persistent and excessive, or it is accompanied by other extreme symptoms, medical attention is called for. In particular if you have any reason to think it is associated with a concussion or head injury or symptoms of a possible heart attack, immediate medical attention is needed. Call 911 if this occurs while you’re not seeing a doctor.
It’s hard to say, but we’d guess that binge drinking is probably the number one cause. Vomiting in this case is usually the digestive system’s healthy reaction to too much of a not-so-good thing. However, alcohol poisoning is possible in extreme cases, so pay attention. If a drinking binge is accompanied by such symptoms as lowered body temperature (hypothermia), cold and clammy skin, and difficulty remaining conscious and similar symptoms, it’s likely something much more serious. Alcohol poisoning kills thousands of people every year and requires immediate emergency medical attention. Call 911 if medical care is not immediately available.
Probably the second most common cause of vomiting is food poisoning and other food borne illnesses, usually from undercooked or cross-contaminated food (salads are a frequent culprit). In this case, vomiting is usually accompanied by fatigues, fever, and diarrhea. In an ordinary case, this is a very short-lived condition that can resolve itself with surprising speed. It is probably the cause of most “24 hour flus.” Other forms of food-borne illness, such as norovirus, may take a few days to a week to get over. However, if the condition persists or there is a risk of dehydration because the patient is unable to keep liquids downs, see a doctor as soon as possible.
This is primarily a matter of common sense. If it’s a one-time thing and the patient feels better after throwing up, it’s probably not serious. If it is extremely intense, has a strange color, is persistent, or accompanied by any other worrisome symptoms, seeing a doctor as soon as possible is crucial.
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