Gastrointestinal infections (37%) and food poisoning are the two most common causes of acute nausea and vomiting. Side effects from medications (3%) and pregnancy are also relatively frequent. There are many causes of chronic nausea. Nausea and vomiting remain undiagnosed in 10% of the cases. Aside from morning sickness, there are no gender differences in complaints of nausea. After childhood, doctor consultations decrease steadily with age. Only a fraction of one percent of doctor visits by those over 65 are due to nausea
Chronic, or long-term, stomach conditions can often cause nausea and vomiting. These conditions can come along with other symptoms, such as diarrhea, constipation, and stomach pain. ... Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common stomach condition that causes bloating, nausea, vomiting, heartburn, fatigue, and cramping.
Taking a thorough patient history may reveal important clues to the cause of nausea and vomiting. If the patient's symptoms have an acute onset, then drugs, toxins, and infections are likely. In contrast, a long-standing history of nausea will point towards a chronic illness as the culprit. The timing of nausea and vomiting after eating food is an important factor to pay attention to. Symptoms that occur within an hour of eating may indicate an obstruction proximal to the small intestine, such as gastroparesis or pyloric stenosis. An obstruction further down in the intestine or colon will cause delayed vomiting. An infectious cause of nausea and vomiting such as gastroenteritis may present several hours to days after the food was ingested. The contents of the emesis is a valuable clue towards determining the cause. Bits of fecal matter in the emesis indicate obstruction in the distal intestine or the colon. Emesis that is of a bilious nature (greenish in color) localizes the obstruction to a point past the stomach. Emesis of undigested food points to an obstruction prior to the gastric outlet, such as achalasia or Zenker's diverticulum. If patient experiences reduced abdominal pain after vomiting, then obstruction is a likely etiology. However, vomiting does not relieve the pain brought on by pancreatitis or cholecystitis.
It is important to watch out for signs of dehydration, such as orthostatic hypotension and loss of skin turgor. Auscultation of the abdomen can produce several clues to the cause of nausea and vomiting. A high-pitched tinkling sound indicates possible bowel obstruction, while a splashing "succussion" sound is more indicative of gastric outlet obstruction. Eliciting pain on the abdominal exam when pressing on the patient may indicate an inflammatory process. Signs such as papilledema, visual field losses, or focal neurological deficits are red flag signs for elevated intracranial pressure.
When a history and physical exam are not enough to determine the cause of nausea and vomiting, certain diagnostic tests may prove useful. A chemistry panel would be useful for electrolyte and metabolic abnormalities. Liver function tests and lipase would identify pancreaticobiliary diseases. Abdominal X-rays showing air-fluid levels indicate bowel obstruction, while an X-ray showing air-filled bowel loops are more indicative of ileus. More advanced imaging and procedures may be necessary, such as a CT scan, upper endoscopy, colonoscopy, barium enema, or MRI. Abnormal GI motility can be assessed using specific tests like gastric scintigraphy, wireless motility capsules, and small-intestinal manometry.
There are several ways to try and prevent nausea from developing: