Projectile vomiting is the uncontrollable & forceful extreme of throwing up. Projectile vomiting in adults can be caused by pregnancy, food poisoning or viruses.
Symptoms of projectile vomiting
Projectile vomiting is the uncontrollable and forceful extreme of "throwing up." Bouts of nausea are more common as a symptom than many other maladies, but when they lead to uncontrollable (and quite unpleasant) bouts of vomiting, we tend to become truly miserable.
Vomiting is used by the body to rid of toxins or poisons you may have ingested. Your body is trying to get rid of something that will cause harm or that it thinks may cause harm. And this reflex is even less pleasant when it is accidentally triggered by more innocuous events rather than something clearly dangerous.
Common accompanying symptoms of projectile vomiting
Projectile vomiting may be associated with these common symptoms:
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Causes of projectile vomiting
Environmental causes of projectile vomiting may include the following.
- Toxins: Ingesting certain substances that your body recognizes as toxic can trigger a forceful and prompt vomiting response. This includes large amounts of alcohol.
- Food poisoning: Certain bacteria on improperly handled food can create toxins either on the food or after they are eaten that trigger vomiting.
- Drugs: Some pharmaceutical drugs can cause nausea or vomiting as a side effect.
Gastrointestinal diseases may result in projectile vomiting.
- Gastroenteritis: Viruses or bacteria can infect the stomach and lead to intractable rapid-onset vomiting.
- Chronic disease: Certain diseases that reduce motility of the stomach or cause inflammation can lead to nausea and vomiting for extended periods.
- Other disorders: Your gastrointestinal tract is a complex piece of digestive machinery, and many organs contribute to its function. Dysfunction of any of these organs like the gall bladder or pancreas can cause vomiting.
- Tumors: Tumors of the gastrointestinal tract can block the forward movement of the food you eat, resulting in reflux.
Other various causes of projectile vomiting include the following.
- Metabolic: Imbalances in the levels of certain electrolytes and nutrients in your blood can cause vomiting.
- Allergy: Nausea and vomiting is a component of severe allergic reaction in some individuals.
- Pregnancy: While certainly not a "disease", the normal bodily changes of pregnancy can lead to imbalance in your gastrointestinal system, with resulting bouts of vomiting.
- Nerve disorders: Disorders of the brain or nerves responsible for balance in the inner ear can lead to vomiting similar to motion sickness.
This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.
Food poisoning, also called foodborne illness or "stomach flu," is an acute infection of the digestive tract from food contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites, or other toxins. It actually has no relation to influenza.
Any food can become contaminated if not prepared under clean conditions, cooked thoroughly, or stored at cold temperatures. Meat, fish, dairy products, and fresh fruits and vegetables are some of the most easily contaminated foods.
Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain, and sometimes fever and chills.
Most people recover on their own with supportive care, meaning rest, fluids, and over-the-counter pain relievers and fever reducers.
However, dehydration can result if the vomiting and/or diarrhea are not controlled and IV fluids may be needed.
If there is also blurred vision, dizziness, or paralysis, the nervous system may be affected due to botulism. This is a medical emergency. Take the patient to the emergency room or call 9-1-1.
Proper food preparation and storage, along with frequent and thorough handwashing, is the best prevention.
Top Symptoms: nausea, abdominal pain (stomach ache), headache, abdominal cramps (stomach cramps), dizziness
Symptoms that never occur with food poisoning: severe fever, being severely ill, bloody diarrhea
Food poisoning by the staphylococcus bacteria
Food poisoning by staphylococcus bacteria refers to the stomach and intestinal upset caused by eating foods contaminated with the staphylococcus, or "staph," bacteria.
Most often, food is contaminated when the person preparing it did not thoroughly wash their hands first. The staph bacteria quickly multiply in food or milk, producing toxins which actually create the illness. The toxins are not destroyed by cooking and the food may look fresh.
Symptoms develop rapidly, within 30 minutes to a few hours, and include nausea, vomiting, stomach cramping, and diarrhea. The illness itself is not spread from person to person.
Diagnosis is made through patient history and physical examination. Lab tests are usually not necessary, but testing may be done if there is a large outbreak with many people affected in one place.
A food poisoning episode usually resolves on its own within 24 hours. Antibiotics are not effective against the toxins. The symptoms can be treated with rest, plenty of fluids, and electrolyte replacement with sports drinks. Severe cases may need intravenous fluids in a hospital.
Top Symptoms: nausea, nausea or vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps (stomach cramps), vomiting
Symptoms that always occur with food poisoning by the staphylococcus bacteria: nausea or vomiting
Migraines are headaches of moderate to severe intensity, which happen when blood vessels in the brain swell up. They are episodic and thus can recur often. Most migraine sufferers experience increased sensitivity to sounds and/or lights and become nauseous and vomit.
Top Symptoms: headache, history of headaches, fatigue, nausea, mild headache
Symptoms that always occur with recurrent migraine: headache, history of headaches
Symptoms that never occur with recurrent migraine: fever, headache resulting from a head injury
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Food poisoning caused by bacillus cereus
Bacillus cereus is a bacteria that produces spores in a variety of foods, especially rice and leftovers that are left out at room temperature. It is relatively rare compared to other causes of food poisoning.
Top Symptoms: stomach bloating, abdominal cramps (stomach cramps), diarrhea, vomiting
Food poisoning caused by clostridium perfringens
Clostridium Perfringens is a bacteria that produces toxins in food, especially beef, poultry, and gravies. It's one of the most common causes of food poisoning. Infants, young children, and older adults are more likely to suffer from this type of food poisoning.
Top Symptoms: stomach bloating, abdominal cramps (stomach cramps), vomiting, watery diarrhea
Foodborne illness (cyclospora infection)
Cyclospora infection causes watery, and sometimes explosive, diarrhea. The one-celled parasite that causes cyclospora infection can enter the body when people ingest contaminated food or water. Fresh produce is the culprit in many cases of cyclospora infection.
Top Symptoms: fatigue, nausea, stomach bloating, vomiting, fever
Symptoms that never occur with foodborne illness (cyclospora infection): severe fever
Urgency: In-person visit
Drinking a normal amount of alcohol
Drinking 1 to 2 alcoholic drinks per day is normal for adults. Anything more than this gets into the range of unhealthy and consideration for talking to your doctor
Symptoms that never occur with drinking a normal amount of alcohol: guilt about alcohol use, other's criticism around drinking, needing a morning alcoholic drink
Urgency: Wait and watch
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Projectile vomiting treatments and relief
You may be able to address your projectile vomiting symptoms at home.
- Rest: Many acute disorders that cause vomiting, such as food poisoning, can get better with time.
- Hydration: Drinking water is key when you are having vomiting if your vomiting is not severe and you are able to keep down fluids. It is recommended that you start slowly with sips of water or clear liquids before building up to your normal levels of intake. Electrolyte solutions such as Pedialyte or Gatorade can help you recover in the early stages after vomiting.
- Food: You should avoid food during the early phases of a vomiting episode you will just end up throwing it back up! But, as you start to feel better, feel free to try eating small amounts of easily digestible foods.
When to see a doctor
Vomiting is something we all have to deal with at some point in our lives, and it can often be managed at home. But certain associated symptoms or severe levels of vomiting require special attention that can only be provided by a physician. If your projectile vomiting worsens or persists, you should see a doctor.
Medical treatments for projectile vomiting include the following.
- Imaging: Doctors may order X-rays or CT scans or other tests to help diagnose the cause of your projectile vomiting.
- Intravenous fluids: If you are dehydrated or are unable to keep down liquids, you will be given fluids through an IV. You may also receive certain electrolytes like potassium if yours are out of balance.
- Medication: In certain cases, you will be treated with a medication which can help stop vomiting.
- Stomach pumping: Placing a tube down the throat (nasogastric or NG tube) to remove the contents of the stomach is used for certain, less common causes of projectile vomiting.
- Surgery: Rarely, certain conditions such as tumors require surgery for symptom management.
When projectile vomiting is an emergency
You should seek help without delay if you have:
- Vomit that has streak of blood, looks like coffee grounds, or appears a bright green color
- Severe abdominal pain
- Inability to keep down fluids for a prolonged period
- Signs of an allergic reaction
- High fever
- Dizziness or loss of consciousness
- Known exposure to a toxic substance
- Another medical condition: Especially if you are of old age
FAQs about projectile vomiting
Can acid reflux cause projectile vomiting in infants?
No, while isolated causes of projectile vomiting can occur and may happen in infants that have reflux, projectile vomiting is more closely associated with an obstruction of the bowels in young infants (three to six weeks of age) called pyloric stenosis. In older children, gastroenteritis and eosinophilic gastroenteritis (an allergic form of gastric inflammation) can cause projectile vomiting.
Why does my stomach hurt when I projectile vomit?
Projectile vomiting can be caused by intense and severe contractions of the stomach (abdominal) muscles and the muscles lining the esophagus. It is usually associated with either obstruction or severe gastroenteritis. If you are experiencing projectile vomiting with no known cause, or if there is blood present in the vomited material, seek medical attention immediately.
Does food poisoning cause projectile vomiting?
Yes, food poisoning can cause projectile vomiting in severe cases. In cases in which no food is able to be tolerated and severe inflammation of the stomach is present, projectile vomiting may occur. In most cases of food poisoning, the primary concern is adequate hydration and nutrition. If an individual is unable to tolerate any water for more than a day without vomiting, they may need intravenous fluid resuscitation. It is important to attempt to drink clear fluids as often as possible.
What's the difference between projectile vomiting and regular vomiting?
Projectile vomiting, like the name implies, is much more forceful such that the vomited material travels some distance (usually a few feet). Projectile vomit is usually the same consistency and material as non-projectile vomit. The primary difference is that is is emitted by much stronger contractions of the stomach (abdominal) muscles.
Why is my projectile vomit red?
Red projectile vomit can be caused by consumption of red foods including beets, red drinks, or even foods containing blood like rare meat or blood sausage. However, if it is due to your blood (and known as hematemesis) it is a urgent that you seek medical care for a possible bleed in the esophagus, stomach, or bowels. There is often no reliable way to determine origin of red coloring in vomit, so it is often safest to seek evaluation.
Questions your doctor may ask about projectile vomiting
- Any fever today or during the last week?
- Have you lost your appetite recently?
- Have you been feeling more tired than usual, lethargic or fatigued despite sleeping a normal amount?
- Are you experiencing a headache?
Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.
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- Ben-Joseph EP. Vomiting. Nemours: KidsHealth. Updated September 2015. KidsHealth Link.
- Phillips MM. Vomiting Blood. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Updated January 25, 2017. MedlinePlus Link.