Merck Manual

Please confirm that you are a health care professional

honeypot link

Nausea and Vomiting

By

Jonathan Gotfried

, MD, Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University

Last full review/revision Mar 2020| Content last modified Mar 2020
Click here for Patient Education
Topic Resources

Nausea, the unpleasant feeling of needing to vomit, represents awareness of afferent stimuli (including increased parasympathetic tone) to the medullary vomiting center. Vomiting is the forceful expulsion of gastric contents caused by involuntary contraction of the abdominal musculature when the gastric fundus and lower esophageal sphincter are relaxed.

Complications

Etiology of Nausea and Vomiting

Nausea and vomiting occur in response to conditions that affect the vomiting center. Causes may originate in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract or central nervous system (CNS) or may result from a number of systemic conditions (see Table: Some Causes of Nausea and Vomiting Some Causes of Nausea and Vomiting Nausea, the unpleasant feeling of needing to vomit, represents awareness of afferent stimuli (including increased parasympathetic tone) to the medullary vomiting center. Vomiting is the forceful... read more ).

The most common causes of nausea and vomiting are the following:

Cyclic vomiting syndrome (CVS) is an uncommon disorder characterized by severe, discrete attacks of vomiting or sometimes only nausea that occur at varying intervals, with normal health between episodes and no demonstrable structural abnormalities. It is most common in childhood (mean age of onset 5 years) and tends to remit with adulthood. Cyclic vomiting in adults can occur with chronic marijuana (cannabis) use (cannabis hyperemesis syndrome); the vomiting can be relieved by a hot bath and resolves after cessation of marijuana use.

Chronic nausea and vomiting syndrome is a functional disorder characterized by the occurrence of symptoms for at least 6 months including the last 3 months. Bothersome nausea and/or vomiting occur at least once a week. This disorder should be considered in patients who, after routine investigation (including upper endoscopy), have no evidence of organic, systemic, or metabolic disease that is likely to explain the symptoms and in who self-induced vomiting, eating disorders, regurgitation, and rumination have been excluded (1 Etiology reference Nausea, the unpleasant feeling of needing to vomit, represents awareness of afferent stimuli (including increased parasympathetic tone) to the medullary vomiting center. Vomiting is the forceful... read more ).

Table
icon

Etiology reference

Evaluation of Nausea and Vomiting

History

History of present illness should elicit frequency and duration of vomiting; its relation to possible precipitants such as drug or toxin ingestion, head injury, and motion (eg, car, plane, boat, amusement rides); and whether vomitus contained bile (bitter, yellow-green) or blood (red or “coffee ground” material). Important associated symptoms include presence of abdominal pain and diarrhea, the last passage of stool and flatus, and presence of headache, vertigo, or both.

Review of systems seeks symptoms of causative disorders such as amenorrhea and breast swelling (pregnancy), polyuria and polydipsia (diabetes), and hematuria and flank pain (kidney stones).

Past medical history should ascertain known causes such as pregnancy, diabetes, migraine, hepatic or renal disease, cancer (including timing of any chemotherapy or radiation therapy), and previous abdominal surgery (which may cause bowel obstruction due to adhesions). All drugs and substances ingested recently should be ascertained; certain substances may not manifest toxicity until several days after ingestion (eg, acetaminophen, some mushrooms).

Family history of recurrent vomiting should be noted.

Physical examination

Vital signs should particularly note presence of fever and signs of hypovolemia (eg, tachycardia, hypotension, or both).

General examination should seek presence of jaundice and rash.

On abdominal examination, the clinician should look for distention and surgical scars; listen for presence and quality of bowel sounds (eg, normal, high-pitched); percuss for tympany; and palpate for tenderness, peritoneal findings (eg, guarding, rigidity, rebound), and any masses, organomegaly, or hernias. Rectal examination and (in women) pelvic examination to locate tenderness, masses, and blood are essential.

Neurologic examination should particularly note mental status, nystagmus, meningismus (eg, stiff neck, Kernig sign or Brudzinski sign), and ocular signs of increased intracranial pressure (eg, papilledema, absence of venous pulsations, 3rd cranial nerve palsy) or subarachnoid hemorrhage (retinal hemorrhage).

Red flags

The following findings are of particular concern:

  • Signs of hypovolemia

  • Headache, stiff neck, or mental status change

  • Peritoneal signs

  • Distended, tympanitic abdomen

Interpretation of findings

Vomiting occurring shortly after drug or toxin ingestion or exposure to motion in a patient with an unremarkable neurologic and abdominal examination can confidently be ascribed to those causes, as may vomiting in a woman with a known pregnancy and a benign examination. Acute vomiting accompanied by diarrhea in an otherwise healthy patient with a benign examination is highly likely to be infectious gastroenteritis Gastroenteritis Gastroenteritis is inflammation of the lining of the stomach and small and large intestines. Most cases are infectious, although gastroenteritis may occur after ingestion of drugs and chemical... read more ; further assessment may be deferred.

Vomiting that occurs at the thought of food or that is not temporally related to eating suggests a psychogenic cause, as does personal or family history of functional nausea and vomiting. Patients should be questioned about the relationship between vomiting and stressful events because they may not recognize the association or even admit to feeling distress at those times.

Testing

All females of childbearing age should have a urine pregnancy test. Patients with severe vomiting, vomiting lasting over 1 day, or signs of dehydration on examination should have other laboratory tests (eg, electrolytes, blood urea nitrogen, creatinine, glucose, urinalysis, sometimes liver tests). Patients with red flag findings should have testing appropriate to the symptoms (see Table: Some Causes of Nausea and Vomiting Some Causes of Nausea and Vomiting Nausea, the unpleasant feeling of needing to vomit, represents awareness of afferent stimuli (including increased parasympathetic tone) to the medullary vomiting center. Vomiting is the forceful... read more ).

The assessment of chronic vomiting usually includes the previously listed laboratory tests plus upper GI endoscopy, small-bowel x-rays, and tests to assess gastric emptying and antral-duodenal motility.

Treatment of Nausea and Vomiting

Specific conditions, including dehydration, are treated. Even without significant dehydration, IV fluid therapy (0.9% saline 1 L, or 20 mL/kg in children) often leads to reduction of symptoms. In adults, various antiemetics are effective (see Table: Some Drugs for Vomiting Some Drugs for Vomiting Nausea, the unpleasant feeling of needing to vomit, represents awareness of afferent stimuli (including increased parasympathetic tone) to the medullary vomiting center. Vomiting is the forceful... read more ). Choice of agent varies somewhat with the cause and severity of symptoms. Typical use is the following:

  • Motion sickness: Antihistamines, scopolamine patches, or both

  • Mild to moderate symptoms: Prochlorperazine or metoclopramide

  • Severe or refractory vomiting and vomiting caused by chemotherapy: 5-HT3 antagonists, neurokinin-1 receptor antagonists (eg, aprepitant)

Only parenteral or sublingual agents should be used in actively vomiting patients.

For psychogenic vomiting, reassurance indicates awareness of the patient’s discomfort and a desire to work toward relief of symptoms, regardless of cause. Comments such as “nothing is wrong” or “the problem is emotional” should be avoided. Brief symptomatic treatment with antiemetics can be tried. If long-term management is necessary, supportive, regular office visits may help resolve the underlying problem.

Table
icon

Key Points

  • Many episodes of nausea and vomiting have an obvious cause and benign examination and require only symptomatic treatment.

  • Be alert for signs of an acute abdomen or significant intracranial disorder.

  • Always consider pregnancy in females of childbearing age.

Drugs Mentioned In This Article

Drug Name Select Trade
COMPRO
REGLAN
No US brand name
OZURDEX
TYLENOL
ALOXI
SANCUSO
ZOFRAN
TRANSDERM SCOP
EMEND
ANZEMET
ANTIVERT
Click here for Patient Education
NOTE: This is the Professional Version. CONSUMERS: Click here for the Consumer Version
Professionals also read

Test your knowledge

Anorectal Fistula
Diagnosis of an anorectal fistula is by clinical examination. One or more secondary openings can be seen, and sometimes a cordlike tract in the fistula can be palpated. However, if Crohn disease is suspected as a cause of the fistula, which of the following studies is most appropriate?
Download the Manuals App iOS ANDROID
Download the Manuals App iOS ANDROID
Download the Manuals App iOS ANDROID
Download the Manuals App iOS ANDROID
Download the Manuals App iOS ANDROID
Download the Manuals App iOS ANDROID

Also of Interest

Download the Manuals App iOS ANDROID
Download the Manuals App iOS ANDROID
Download the Manuals App iOS ANDROID
TOP