Vomiting: Causes

By McBratney, Susan, PhD
By Spader, Catherine, RN

What causes vomiting?   

Conditions that are known to cause vomiting include infection, poisoning, mental health illnesses, malignancy (cancer), inflammation, trauma, obstruction, and other abnormal processes within the digestive system, nervous system, reproductive system, cardiovascular system, or endocrine system.

Gastrointestinal causes of vomiting

Vomiting may arise from problems in the digestive tract including:

  • Appendicitis
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Intestinal obstruction
  • Overeating or eating a high-fat meal
  • Pancreatitis
  • Peptic ulcer and H. pylori infection
  • Perforated bowel
  • Peritonitis

Other causes of vomiting

Vomiting can also be caused by problems in body systems other than the digestive tract including:

  • Altitude sickness or motion sickness

  • Brain tumor or brain swelling

  • Bulimia

  • Cancer and chemotherapy medications

  • Concussion

  • Cyclic vomiting syndrome

  • Exposure to smoke or toxic fumes or substances

  • General anesthesia

  • Kidney stone

  • Medication side effects

  • Migraine

  • Pregnancy and morning sickness

  • Vertigo and labyrinthitis

Life-threatening causes of vomiting

In some cases, vomiting may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Call your doctor or poison-control hotline immediately or take the person to an emergency care facility if you suspect poisoning or drug ingestion.

Life-threatening causes of vomiting include:

  • Appendicitis
  • Bowel obstruction
  • Brain hemorrhage
  • Diabetic ketoacidosis
  • Heat exhaustion
  • Increased intracranial pressure (high pressure inside the skull, usually from brain swelling)
  • Intestinal ischemia (loss of blood supply to the intestines)
  • Meningitis (infection or inflammation of the sac around the brain and spinal cord)
  • Peritonitis (infection or inflammation in the abdominal cavity)
  • Poisoning
  • Severe pain
  • Uremia

    What are the potential complications of vomiting?

    If left untreated, vomiting can lead to serious complications, especially if the vomiting is severe, continues for days, or the underlying disease or condition is untreated or poorly managed. Complications include:

    • Aspiration of stomach contents into the airway and lungs

    • Dehydration due to a decreased desire to drink or ability to hold fluids

    • Electrolyte imbalance

    • Gum disease

    • Mallory-Weiss tear (tear of the lower esophagus resulting in severe bleeding)

    • Poor nutrition due to a decreased desire to eat

    • Tooth decay

    • Anemia and shock caused by vomiting of blood


    1. Kahan S, Miller R, Smith EG (Eds.). In A Page Signs & Symptoms, 2d ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams & Williams, 2009.
    2. Ferri FF. Ferri’s Differential Diagnosis, 2d ed. Philadelphia: Mosby Elsevier, 2011.
    3. Scorza K, Williams A, Phillips JD, Shaw J. Evaluation of nausea and vomiting. Am Fam Physician 2007; 76:76.

    What is vomiting?

    Vomiting, also known as emesis and throwing up, is the forceful ejection of the stomach’s contents. Vomiting is a common symptom of a wide variety of mild to serious diseases, disorders and conditions. It occurs in all age groups and populations and may or may not occur with nausea.

    Depending on the cause, vom... Read more about vomitingintroduction


    What other symptoms might occur with vomiting?

    Vomiting may occur with other symptoms depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Symptoms that frequently affect the digestive tract may also involve other body systems.

    Digestive symptoms that may occur along with vomiting

    Vomiting may occur with other symptoms affecting the digestive tract including:

    Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Annual Review Date: Sep 30, 2013 Copyright: © Copyright 2014 Health Grades, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Health Grades, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the HealthGrades User Agreement.

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