Vomiting (known medically as emesis and informally as throwing up and by a number of other terms) is the forceful expulsion of the contents of one's stomach through the mouth and sometimes the nose. Vomiting can be caused by a wide variety of conditions; it may present as a specific response to ailments like gastritis or poisoning, or as a non-specific sequela of disorders ranging from brain tumors and elevated intracranial pressure to overexposure to ionizing radiation. The feeling that one is about to vomit is called nausea, which usually precedes, but does not always lead to, vomiting. Antiemetics are sometimes necessary to suppress nausea and vomiting. In severe cases, where dehydration develops, intravenous fluid may be required.
Vomiting is different from regurgitation, although the two terms are often used interchangeably. Regurgitation is the return of undigested food back up the esophagus to the mouth, without the force and displeasure associated with vomiting. The causes of vomiting and regurgitation are generally different.
Aspiration of vomit
Vomiting can be dangerous if the gastric content enters the respiratory tract. Under normal circumstances the gag reflex and coughing prevent this from occurring, however these protective reflexes are compromised in persons under the influences of certain substances such as alcohol or anesthesia. The individual may choke and asphyxiate or suffer an aspiration pneumonia.
Dehydration and electrolyte imbalance
Prolonged and excessive vomiting depletes the body of water (dehydration), and may alter the electrolyte status. Gastric vomiting leads to the loss of acid (protons) and chlorine directly. Combined with the resulting alkaline tide, this leads to hypochloremic metabolic alkalosis (low chloride levels together with high HCO3 and CO2 and increased blood pH) and often hypokalemia (potassium depletion). The hypokalemia is an indirect result of the kidney compensating for the loss of acid. With the loss of intake of food the individual may eventually become cachectic. A less frequent occurrence results from a vomiting of intestinal contents, including bile acids and HCO3-, which can lead to metabolic acidosis.
Repeated or profuse vomiting may cause erosions to the esophagus or small tears in the esophageal mucosa (Mallory-Weiss tear). This may become apparent if fresh red blood is mixed with vomit after several episodes.
Recurrent vomiting, such as observed in bulimia nervosa, may lead to destruction of the tooth enamel due to the acidity of the vomit. Digestive enzymes can also have a negative effect on oral health, by degrading the tissue of the gums.
alt=A Renaissance drawing with vivid colours depicting a woman holding the head of a man, who is bent over and expelling a brownish-red material from his mouth. A second woman stands at the left of the image in the doorway to the room, and appears to offer support. A crude representation of vomiting. Receptors on the floor of the fourth ventricle of the brain represent a chemoreceptor trigger zone, known as the area postrema, stimulation of which can lead to vomiting. The area postrema is a circumventricular organ and as such lies outside the blood brain barrier; it can therefore be stimulated by blood-borne drugs that can stimulate vomiting or inhibit it.
There are various sources of input to the vomiting center:
- The chemoreceptor trigger zone at the base of the fourth ventricle has numerous dopamine D2 receptors, serotonin 5-HT3 receptors, opioid receptors, acetylcholine receptors, and receptors for substance P. Stimulation of different receptors are involved in different pathways leading to emesis, in the final common pathway substance P appears involved.
- The vestibular system, which sends information to the brain via cranial nerve VIII (vestibulocochlear nerve), plays a major role in motion sickness, and is rich in muscarinic receptors and histamine H1 receptors.
- The Cranial nerve X (vagus nerve) is activated when the pharynx is irritated, leading to a gag reflex.
- The Vagal and enteric nervous system inputs transmit information regarding the state of the gastrointestinal system. Irritation of the GI mucosa by chemotherapy, radiation, distention, or acute infectious gastroenteritis activates the 5-HT3 receptors of these inputs.
- The CNS mediates vomiting that arises from psychiatric disorders and stress from higher brain centers.
The vomiting act encompasses three types of outputs initiated by the chemoreceptor trigger zone: Motor, parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), and sympathetic nervous system (SNS). They are as follows:
The neurotransmitters that regulate vomiting are poorly understood, but inhibitors of dopamine, histamine, and serotonin are all used to suppress vomiting, suggesting that these play a role in the initiation or maintenance of a vomiting cycle. Vasopressin and neurokinin may also participate.
The vomiting act has two phases. In the retching phase, the abdominal muscles undergo a few rounds of coordinated contractions together with the diaphragm and the muscles used in respiratory inspiration. For this reason, an individual may confuse this phase with an episode of violent hiccups. In this retching phase nothing has yet been expelled. In the next phase, also termed the expulsive phase, intense pressure is formed in the stomach brought about by enormous shifts in both the diaphragm and the abdomen. These shifts are, in essence, vigorous contractions of these muscles that last for extended periods of time - much longer than a normal period of muscular contraction. The pressure is then suddenly released when the upper esophageal sphincter relaxes resulting in the expulsion of gastric contents. Individuals who do not regularly exercise their abdominal muscles may experience pain in those muscles for a few days. The relief of pressure and the release of endorphins into the bloodstream after the expulsion causes the vomiter to feel better.
Gastric secretions and likewise vomit are highly acidic. Recent food intake appears in the gastric vomit. Irrespective of the content, vomit tends to be malodorous.
The content of the vomitus (vomit) may be of medical interest. Fresh blood in the vomit is termed hematemesis ("blood vomiting"). Altered blood bears resemblance to coffee grounds (as the iron in the blood is oxidized) and, when this matter is identified, the term "coffee ground vomiting" is used. Bile can enter the vomit during subsequent heaves due to duodenal contraction if the vomiting is severe. Fecal vomiting is often a consequence of intestinal obstruction or a gastrocolic fistula and is treated as a warning sign of this potentially serious problem ("signum mali ominis").
If the vomiting reflex continues for an extended period with no appreciable vomitus, the condition is known as non-productive emesis or dry heaves, which can be painful and debilitating.
- Color of vomit
- Bright red in the vomit suggests bleeding from the esophagus
- Dark red vomit with liver-like clots suggests profuse bleeding in the stomach, such as from a perforated ulcer
- Coffee ground-like vomit suggests less severe bleeding in the stomach, because the gastric acid has had time to change the composition of the blood
- Yellow vomit suggests bile. This indicates that the pyloric valve is open and bile is flowing into the stomach from the duodenum. (This is more common in older people.)
Vomiting may be due to a large number of causes, and protracted vomiting has a long differential diagnosis.
Causes in the digestive tract
Sensory system and brain
Causes in the sensory system
Causes in the brain
Metabolic disturbances (these may irritate both the stomach and the parts of the brain that coordinate vomiting)
Drug reaction (vomiting may occur as an acute somatic response to)
Illness (sometimes colloquially known as "stomach flu" a broad name that refers to gastric inflammation caused by a range of viruses and bacteria.)
An emetic, such as syrup of ipecac, is a substance that induces vomiting when administered orally or by injection. An emetic is used medically where a substance has been ingested and must be expelled from the body immediately (for this reason, many toxic and easily digestible products such as rat poison contain an emetic). Inducing vomiting can remove the substance before it is absorbed into the body. Ipecac abuse can cause detrimental health effects.
Salt water and mustard water have been used since ancient times as emetics. Care must be taken with salt, as excessive intake can potentially be harmful.
Copper sulfate was also used in the past as an emetic. It is now considered too toxic for this use.
It is quite common that, when one person vomits, others nearby become nauseated, particularly when smelling the vomit of others, often to the point of vomiting themselves. It is believed that this is an evolved trait among primates. Many primates in the wild tend to browse for food in small groups. Should one member of the party react adversely to some ingested food, it may be advantageous (in a survival sense) for other members of the party also to vomit. This tendency in human populations has been observed at drinking parties, where excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages may result in a number of party members vomiting nearly simultaneously, this being triggered by the initial vomiting of a single member of the party. This phenomenon has been touched on in popular culture: Notorious instances appear in the films Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983) and Stand By Me(1986).
Intense vomiting in ayahuasca ceremonies is a common phenomenon. However, people who experience "la purga" after drinking ayahuasca, in general, regard the practice as both a physical and spiritual cleanse and often come to welcome it. It has been suggested that the consistent emetic effects of ayahuasca in addition to its many other therapeutic properties was of medicinal benefit to indigenous peoples of the Amazon, in helping to clear parasites from the gastrointestinal system.
There have also been documented cases of a single ill and vomiting individual inadvertently causing others to vomit, when they are especially fearful of also becoming ill, through a form of mass hysteria.
Most people try to contain their vomit by vomiting into a sink, toilet, or trash can, as both the act and the vomit itself are widely considered embarrassing; vomit is also difficult and unpleasant to clean. An instance of this occurred in the 2001 film 61* when Mickey Mantle (Thomas Jane) vomited into a pail in the trainer's room at Yankee Stadium while hung over after a wild night on the town. On airplanes and boats, special bags are supplied for sick passengers to vomit into. A special disposable bag containing absorbent material that solidifies the vomit quickly is available, also, making it convenient and safe to keep (leakproof, puncture-resistant, odorless) until there is an opportunity to dispose of it conveniently.
People who vomit chronically (e.g., as part of an eating disorder such as bulimia nervosa) may devise various ways to hide this disorder.
An online study of people's responses to "horrible sounds" found vomiting "the most disgusting." Professor Cox of the University of Salford's Acoustic Research Centre said that "We are pre-programmed to be repulsed by horrible things such as vomiting, as it is fundamental to staying alive to avoid nasty stuff." It is thought that disgust is triggered by the sound of vomiting to protect those nearby from, possibly diseased, food.
Fecal vomiting (aka stercoraceous vomiting) is a kind of vomiting, or emesis, in which partially or fully digested matter is expelled from the intestines into the stomach, by a combination of liquid and gas pressure and spasmodic contractions of the gastric muscles, and then subsequently forcefully expelled from the stomach up into the esophagus and out through the mouth and sometimes nasal passages. Though it is not usually fecal matter that is expelled, it smells noxious. Alternative medical terms for fecal vomiting are copremesis and stercoraceous vomiting. Copremesis like all emesis may lead to aspiration. However, if contents of the large intestine are aspirated, severe or even fatal aspiration pneumonia results, secondary to the massive number of bacteria normally present distal to the ileocecal valve. Projectile vomiting refers to vomiting that ejects the gastric contents with great force. It is a classic symptom of infantile hypertrophic pyloric stenosis, in which it typically follows feeding and can be so forceful that some material exits through the nose.
An antiemetic is a drug that is effective against vomiting and nausea. Antiemetics are typically used to treat motion sickness and the side-effects of medications such as opioids and chemotherapy.
Antiemetics act by inhibiting the receptor sites associated with emesis. Hence, anticholinergics, antihistamines, dopamine antagonists, serotonin antagonists, and cannabinoids are used as anti-emetics.
Nausea and or vomiting is the main complaint in 1.6% of visits to family physicians in Australia.
Over the years, the act of vomiting has inspired a number of terms that have entered American Slang. Some of the more popular terms in recent years have included: Barf, Puke, Ralph, Spew, Blow Chunks, Technicolor Yawn, Yack, Blow Groceries, Upchuck, Hurl, Lose Lunch, Toss Cookies, Pray to the Porcelain God, Drive the Porcelain Bus - the latter two terms involve vomiting into a toilet.
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