When you suddenly start vomiting like it’s your job, your first question is probably what you can do to make it stop. Your next thought? Figuring out what caused your vomiting so you can try to make sure this never, ever happens again. Unfortunately, plenty of health conditions can kick off a puking festival in your bathroom (or somewhere else, if you’re unlucky). Here are some of the most common ones.
1. Food poisoning
Each year, around 48 million people in the United States get sick from a foodborne illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). There’s no one cause of foodborne illness, but the top five include norovirus, Salmonella, Clostridium perfringens, Campylobacter, and Staphylococcus aureus, per the CDC.
The symptoms of each foodborne illness are slightly different. In general, you can expect plenty of nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, and diarrhea. “No matter the cause, foodborne illness means there’s some type of bacteria, parasite, or virus … that your body wants to get rid of,” Carolyn Newberry, M.D., a gastroenterologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and an assistant professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, tells SELF. Vomiting, she says, is a systemic response from your body to try to force the illness-causing pathogen (and whatever else you ate that might be infected) out of you.
Most people will be OK anywhere from a few hours to a few days after food poisoning symptoms start. But the CDC recommends seeing a doctor if you have a temperature higher than 101.5 degrees, bloody poop, vomiting that’s so bad you can’t keep liquids down, signs of dehydration, or diarrhea that lasts more than three days.
2. The stomach flu
The stomach flu, also known as viral gastroenteritis, is a common intestinal infection that can cause nausea, vomiting, watery diarrhea, stomach cramps, and sometimes a fever, the Mayo Clinic says. People generally get it from coming into contact with someone who is infected with a virus like norovirus or with items that have norovirus on them. (This is why the stomach flu can be a type of food poisoning.)
You’ll typically start having those lovely stomach flu symptoms anywhere from one to three days after becoming infected, the Mayo Clinic says. For most people, symptoms only last a day or two, but they can stick around for as long as 10 days.
As with many other viruses, you pretty much have to ride this out by resting and trying to stay hydrated as best as you can, Ashkan Farhadi, M.D., a gastroenterologist at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center and director of MemorialCare Medical Group’s Digestive Disease Project in Fountain Valley, California, tells SELF. Measures like sucking on ice chips, taking small sips of water, and gently easing yourself back into bland foods can help, the Mayo Clinic says.
Definitely call your doctor if you aren’t able to keep liquids down for 24 hours, have been vomiting for more than two days, are vomiting blood, are showing signs of dehydration, have a fever above 104 degrees, or notice blood in your poop.
3. Motion sickness
Going places should be fun, not hellish. Motion sickness doesn’t care. This illness can come on suddenly when you travel by car, train, plane, or boat, and it often involves cold sweats, nausea, and vomiting, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Worst of all, you’re not exactly in the comfort of your own bathroom when motion sickness strikes.
Your brain is able to tell that you’re moving thanks to signals from your inner ears, eyes, muscles, and joints, the U.S. National Library of Medicine explains. When those signals don’t match up, your too-smart-for-its-own-good brain can sense this, and you wind up with motion sickness. For example, if you’re reading in a car, your brain can tell that your body is moving, but your eyes are focusing on a still page.
Luckily, there are tons of lifestyle tweaks you can make to avoid motion sickness. The Cleveland Clinic suggests things like not reading or watching TV in a moving vehicle, drinking plenty of water, and standing if you feel queasy and are somewhere like a train or boat. But if those don’t seem to help, see your doctor. They may recommend that you try over-the-counter products or prescription drugs to treat your motion sickness.
4. Morning sickness
Morning sickness is a not-so-fun side effect of pregnancy that causes nausea and vomiting, usually in the first trimester, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).
While morning sickness is super common, experts aren’t entirely sure what causes it. They heavily suspect that hormones are at play, especially human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) and estrogen. “Those hormones tend to induce nausea and vomiting,” Dr. Newberry says.
HCG is secreted by the placenta, the organ that your body makes during pregnancy to nourish the fetus. Your levels of hCG tend to top out in early pregnancy, when morning sickness is the most intense. Couple that with the fact that the placenta also makes estrogen, which can also cause nausea, and you’ve got a nice little vomit-inducing recipe.
Again, morning sickness is common in pregnancy, so having it doesn’t automatically mean anything bad. However, you should see your doctor if you really can’t seem to stop vomiting and it’s affecting your life, ACOG says. Severe morning sickness, known as hyperemesis gravidarum may require treatment with fluids and anti-nausea drugs.
Debilitating pain may come to mind when you think of migraines, but they can also cause symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and an extreme sensitivity to light and sound, the Mayo Clinic says. Migraines irritate the outer covering of your brain, as the Mayo Clinic explains. “Whenever the brain itself is irritated, it can cause vomiting,” Dr. Farhadi says.
There are plenty of ways to treat migraines, either by preventing them or stopping the symptoms (or both), so you should talk to your doctor for more information on what might be best for you. Keep in mind that you should seek medical attention ASAP if you have a headache with fever, weakness, numbness, or trouble speaking, a severe “thunderclap” headache that comes out of nowhere, a headache with a stiff neck, a headache after a head injury, a chronic headache that’s worse after you cough, strain, or make a sudden movement, and new headache pain if you’re over 50, the Mayo Clinic says. Any of these can indicate a more severe neurological issue, so don’t hesitate to talk to your doctor.
6. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) happens when your stomach acid regularly flows back into your esophagus, the tube that runs between your mouth and stomach, the Mayo Clinic says. This acid can irritate the lining of your esophagus and cause symptoms like a burning feeling in your chest (heartburn), chest pain, trouble swallowing, the feeling of a lump in your throat, and vomiting. Well, kind of.
The vomiting you might experience with GERD is a little different from “normal” vomiting. When you have GERD, you’re technically regurgitating your food, which basically means something you swallowed recently comes back up to your mouth, Dr. Newberry explains. Actual vomiting is more forceful and generally happens after your stomach has had a little time to break down the food, she says. However, given how gross it is to regurgitate your food, it’s entirely possible that you’ll end up vomiting after regurgitating food anyway, Dr. Farhadi says.
If you think you have GERD, see a doctor for a diagnosis and to hear your treatment options. They should be able to recommend over-the-counter drugs or prescription medications that can help, along with lifestyle tweaks like not eating foods that trigger this acidic backwash.
The hallmark symptom of appendicitis is sudden pain that starts on the right side of your lower abdomen or that starts around your belly button and shifts to your lower right abdomen. It can also cause pain that gets worse when you cough, walk, or make jarring movements; loss of appetite; a low-grade fever, constipation or diarrhea; bloating; or nausea and vomiting, the Mayo Clinic says. “Any time you get an irritation of the GI tract, it can induce a trigger to vomit,” Dr. Newberry says.
Appendicitis is serious and can be life-threatening if your appendix ends up rupturing, so see a doctor ASAP if you have these symptoms, especially if they’re severe. If you do have appendicitis, they’ll typically remove your appendix (which you don’t even really need anyway).
8. A severe allergic reaction to food
When you have a food allergy, your immune system overreacts to a protein found in that item, according to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI). That can spark a host of symptoms, including itchiness, hives, a stuffy nose, vomiting, stomach cramps, diarrhea, and swelling. In some instances, you might experience anaphylaxis, a much more severe and potentially life-threatening reaction that can cause your throat to tighten.
In any case, if you’re having an allergic reaction to food, your stomach may want to do all it can to get that food out, such as causing you to vomit, Dr. Newberry says.
If you suspect that you have a food allergy, it’s important to see an allergist to undergo testing, the AAAAI says. If you have a severe allergy, your doctor will likely recommend that you carry auto-injectable epinephrine like an EpiPen with you at all times in case you’re accidentally exposed to that food in the future. But, if you tend to have a milder reaction, your doctor may recommend carrying an antihistamine with you and taking it if you’ve been accidentally exposed to the food. Either way, a food allergy is not something you want to mess around with, so see your doctor ASAP and make a plan.