Acute Nausea and Vomiting

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What are acute nausea and vomiting?

Acute nausea and vomiting are common symptoms that may be caused many different disorders. Acute nausea and vomiting may occur in conditions affecting the digestive system itself or in association with more generalized conditions, such as influenza, migraine headaches or meningitis. Many causes of acute nausea and vomiting are not serious; however, these symptoms can also be a sign of severe underlying conditions.

Common causes of nausea and vomiting include viral gastroenteritis and morning sickness that is associated with pregnancy. Many medications can cause acute nausea and vomiting, such as chemotherapy and general anesthetics used for surgery. Migraine headaches are also common causes for acute nausea and vomiting. Foodborne illnesses are a common cause for acute nausea and vomiting and often also result in diarrhea.

If your symptoms are persistent and severe, or you are unable to keep down any fluids or food, these may be signs of a serious condition. Rarely, nausea and vomiting may indicate a serious or even life-threatening problem such as a heart attack.

Left untreated, acute nausea and vomiting may lead to severe dehydration. Severe dehydration and electrolyte imbalances can result in shock or coma and may be life threatening. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have symptoms of severe dehydration such as confusion, lethargy, loss of consciousness, cold skin, or reduced urine production.

What other symptoms might occur with acute nausea and vomiting?

Acute nausea and vomiting may accompany other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Symptoms that frequently affect your digestive tract may also involve other body systems.

Digestive symptoms that may occur along with acute nausea and vomiting

Acute nausea and vomiting may accompany other symptoms affecting the digestive system including:

Other symptoms that may occur along with acute nausea and vomiting

Acute nausea and vomiting may accompany symptoms related to other body systems including:

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, acute nausea and vomiting may be a symptom of a life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:

  • Change in mental status or sudden behavior change such as confusion, delirium, lethargy, hallucinations and delusions

  • Headache and stiff neck

  • High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)

  • Persistent vomiting

  • Severe abdominal pain

  • Vomit with blood or greenish bile

What causes acute nausea and vomiting?

Acute nausea and vomiting begins with a feeling of nausea that stimulates a series of processes in your body that force the contents of your stomach to be expelled back up through your throat and out of your mouth in the act of vomiting. Gastroenteritis is a common cause of acute nausea and vomiting. Viruses, bacteria and other pathogens may cause such reactions.

Medications can also cause acute nausea and vomiting, particularly chemotherapy. Additionally, gastrointestinal disorders commonly cause acute nausea and vomiting through inflammation, infection, blockage or dysfunction.

Pregnancy causes morning sickness, which is also a common cause of acute nausea and vomiting. Morning sickness may occur in the first trimester of pregnancy or throughout the entire pregnancy.

Common causes of acute nausea and vomiting

Common causes of acute nausea and vomiting include:

Serious or life-threatening causes of acute nausea and vomiting

In some cases, acute nausea and vomiting may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These conditions include:

Questions for diagnosing the cause of acute nausea and vomiting

To diagnose your condition, your health care professional will ask you several questions related to your acute nausea and vomiting including:

  • How long have you had nausea and vomiting?

  • Did your nausea and vomiting occur right after eating?

  • Do you have a fever?

  • Do you have any other symptoms?

  • What medications are you taking?

What are the potential complications of acute nausea and vomiting?

Because acute nausea and vomiting can be due to a serious disease, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Brain damage

  • Weight loss (very dangerous in an infant/toddler)

  • Dehydration (loss of body fluids and electrolytes, which can be life threatening when severe and untreated)

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 6
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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  3. Kahan S, Miller R, Smith EG (Eds.). In A Page Signs & Symptoms, 2d ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams & Williams, 2009.