Nausea and vomiting in adults isn't usually a sign of anything serious and tends to only last one or two days.
Vomiting is the body’s way of ridding itself of harmful substances from the stomach, or it may be a reaction to something that has irritated the gut.
One of the most common causes of vomiting in adults is gastroenteritis. This is an infection of the gut usually caused by bacteria or a virus, which will normally improve within a few days.
However, vomiting can occasionally be a sign of something more serious, such as appendicitis, so if you are feeling very unwell or are worried about your vomiting, trust your instincts and call your GP.
There is a separate topic on vomiting in children and babies.
When to contact your GP
Contact your GP if:
- you've been vomiting repeatedly for more than a day or two
- you're unable to keep down any fluids because you are vomiting repeatedly
- your vomit is green (this could mean you are bringing up a fluid called bile, which suggests you may have a blockage in your bowel – see below)
- you have signs of severe dehydration, such as confusion, a rapid heartbeat, sunken eyes and passing little or no urine
- you've lost a lot of weight since you became ill
- you experience episodes of vomiting frequently
Your GP may want to investigate the cause of your vomiting or prescribe treatment.
You should also see your GP if you have diabetes and have been vomiting persistently, particularly if you need to take insulin. This is because prolonged vomiting can affect your blood sugar level.
When to seek emergency medical help
Occasionally, vomiting can be a sign of a more serious problem.
You should call 999 for an ambulance, or go to your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department if you also have:
You should also seek emergency medical help if you think you have swallowed something poisonous.
Common causes of vomiting in adults
If you have diarrhoea as well as vomiting, it's likely you have gastroenteritis. This is one of the most common causes of vomiting in adults.
It's often the result of a virus picked up from someone who's ill, such as the norovirus, or food poisoning caused by bacteria found in contaminated food.
Your immune system will usually fight off the infection after a few days and the self-care measures described above can help in the meantime. Read more about treating gastroenteritis.
Pregnant women typically experience repeated episodes of nausea and vomiting, particularly during the early stages of pregnancy. This is often called "morning sickness", although it can occur throughout the day.
In most cases, morning sickness will develop at some point during the first three months of pregnancy and will pass by about weeks 16-20. Read more about morning sickness, including things you can do to help reduce your symptoms.
If you have recurrent episodes of vomiting along with intense, throbbing headaches that last for a few hours to days at a time, you may be experiencing migraines.
Conventional painkillers, such as paracetamol and ibuprofen, can sometimes help control the pain and your GP can prescribe anti-sickness medicine to help prevent vomiting. Read more about treating migraines.
If your vomiting is accompanied by dizziness and a feeling of spinning (vertigo), it may be caused by an inner ear infection called labyrinthitis.
Labyrinthitis will usually improve over a few days, and your GP can prescribe medication to reduce your symptoms if necessary.
Nausea and vomiting associated with travelling could be a sign of motion sickness.
These symptoms can sometimes be improved using techniques such as fixing your eyes on the horizon or distracting yourself by listening to music, although medication to prevent and treat motion sickness is also available.
As well as vomiting, appendicitis can cause severe pain in your abdomen (tummy). You should call 999 for an ambulance if you experience pain that suddenly becomes worse and spreads across your abdomen. These are signs that your appendix may have burst.
If you have appendicitis, you will often need surgery to remove your appendix. Read more about treating appendicitis.
Other causes of vomiting in adults
Vomiting in adults can also be caused by a number of other things, including:
Clink on the links above for more information about these conditions and treatments.
Looking after yourself at home
In most cases, you won't need any specific treatment and can take care of yourself at home until you feel better.
The most important thing you can do is to keep taking small sips of water frequently so you don't become dehydrated.
A sweet drink such as fruit juice can be useful for replacing lost sugar, although you should avoid sweet drinks if they make you feel sick. Salty snacks, such as crisps, can help replace lost salt.
You may also find ginger helps to relieve your nausea and vomiting. This is available as supplements, or can be found in ginger biscuits and ginger tea. Check with your pharmacist or GP before using ginger supplements.
Page last reviewed: 17/12/2014
Next review due: 17/12/2016