Skip to main contentSkip to accessibility services

Retching: What Dry Heaving Means and How to Treat It

Retching is often caused by indigestion, a viral infection, or even pregnancy. Another serious cause for dry heaving include whooping cough. Read below for more information on causes and how to stop dry heaves and retching.

Retching symptoms

When you want to throw up, you want to just get it over withnot keep trying at it.

But retching, or dry heaving, is when the body keeps trying to vomit but you can't. It's a very irritating sensation that typically keeps happening over and over again. Most of us have our first experience with the dry heaves the first time we drink too much. But to put it quite plainly, it is not a pleasant sensation.

What is retching?

In medical terms, to "retch" is when your diaphragm contracts in an effort to vomit but the body is unsuccessful in doing so.

Common characteristics of retching

If you're experiencing retching, it can be described by:

  • Feeling as if you need to vomit but cannot
  • Gagging
  • Feeling as if the diaphragm is "jumping" in your stomach when you retch
  • Trying repeatedly to vomit but cannot
  • Breaking out in a sweat
  • Nausea
  • Chills
  • Indigestion
  • Abdominal pain
  • Sometimes you may be able to vomit
  • Vomiting only bile after continued vomiting and retching

What is causing your retching?

Start a chat with Buoy AI assistant to find out what’s causing your retching.

Free, private and secure to get you the best way to well. Learn about our technology.

Retching causes

Retching is caused by a medical situation which is causing your stomach to want to eject all its contents. Often, individuals want very much to vomit who are having dry heaves, just to resolve all their symptoms.

Lifestyle-related causes

Various lifestyle habits may result in retching.

  • Exercise: Periods of strenuous exercise can lead to retching as it causes the diaphragm to contract. If your exercise sessions are intense, avoid eating a large meal right before.
  • Stress: Moments of high stress can cause retching in some. If you're managing stress or anxiety with medication, certain brands can cause dry heaving as well.

Infectious causes

Infectious causes that may result in retching include the following.

  • Food poisoning: Eating or drinking a contaminated substance can cause food poisoning. Vomiting is a more likely symptom, but this can be followed by dry heaving once the stomach is empty.
  • Whooping cough: We often associate whooping cough with babies but adults can contract the infection as well. If the associated cough continues to develop and worsen, it can cause retching.

Conditions and diseases

Various conditions may result in retching, such as:

  • Pregnancy: It is estimated that as many as 90% of pregnant women experience some degree of nausea in early pregnancy. The severity of the nausea varies greatly though. While some women spend months in bed, unable to keep anything down, some only experience a few episodes of retching.
  • GERD: Gastroesophageal reflux disease is a digestive disorder affecting the lower esophageal sphincter. Heartburn and acid indigestion are common symptoms of GERD, both which can lead to retching.

Serious causes

More serious causes of retching/dry heaving include:

  • Liver, kidney, or pancreas disorders: Nausea accompanied by a loss of appetite are a common sign of serious liver, kidney, and pancreas diseases and disorders. If your retching persists, see your physician.
  • Whooping cough: This is also considered a serious illness caused by infection that causes persistent coughing, that can become so severe it causes gagging, vomiting, and dry heaves.

9 conditions of retching

This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.

Indigestion (dyspepsia)

Indigestion, also called upset stomach, dyspepsia, or functional dyspepsia, is not a disease but a collection of very common symptoms. Note: Heartburn is a separate condition.

Common causes are eating too much or too rapidly; greasy or spicy foods; overdoing caffeine, alcohol, or carbonated beverages; smoking; and anxiety. Some antibiotics, pain relievers, and vitamin/mineral supplements can cause indigestion.

The most common symptoms are pain, discomfort, and bloating in the upper abdomen soon after eating.

Indigestion that lasts longer than two weeks, and does not respond to simple treatment, may indicate a more serious condition. Upper abdominal pain that radiates to the jaw, neck, or arm is a medical emergency.

Diagnosis is made through patient history and physical examination. If the symptoms began suddenly, laboratory tests on blood, breath, and stool may be ordered. Upper endoscopy or abdominal x-ray may be done.

For functional dyspepsia – "ordinary" indigestion – treatment and prevention are the same. Eating five or six smaller meals per day with lighter, simpler food; managing stress; and finding alternatives for some medications will provide relief.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: nausea, stomach bloating, dyspeptic symptoms, bloating after meals, vomiting

Symptoms that always occur with indigestion (dyspepsia):dyspeptic symptoms

Symptoms that never occur with indigestion (dyspepsia): vomiting (old) blood or passing tarry stools, rectal bleeding, bloody diarrhea, fever

Urgency: Self-treatment

Functional dyspepsia/indigestion

Indigestion, also known as dyspepsia, is a condition that causes pain or discomfort in the stomach after eating. In some cases, indigestion also causes heartburn, burping, and nausea. Indigestion or dyspepsia is a very common complaint and in most cases there is no serious underlying cause. This is when doctors call it 'functional'.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: stomach bloating, nausea, dyspeptic symptoms, bloating after meals, vomiting

Symptoms that always occur with functional dyspepsia/indigestion:dyspeptic symptoms

Symptoms that never occur with functional dyspepsia/indigestion:vomiting (old) blood or passing tarry stools, rectal bleeding, bloody diarrhea, fever

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Viral (norovirus) infection

If you ever heard of an entire cruise ship of people coming down with the same “stomach bug,” chances are that was norovirus. Fortunately, norovirus usually goes away on its own after a few days, but is pretty unpleasant and can spread extremely easily. The ...

Gastroparesis (delayed gastric emptying)

Gastroparesis is a condition that causes nausea and vomiting. It can also make you feel full too soon after you start eating. It happens because the stomach takes too long to empty and does not move food along through your body fast enough.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: nausea, stomach bloating, vomiting, pain below the ribs, feeling of fullness early in a meal

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Possible pregnancy

The earliest sign of pregnancy is typically a missed period, but many women do experience symptoms shortly after conception:

  • Implantation bleeding may occur after six to twelve days, when the fertilized egg implants itself into the lining of the uterus. This can cause mild cramping with light bleeding or spotting.
  • Fatigue and increased desire to sleep may happen within a week.
  • Breast tenderness can start as soon as one to two weeks.
  • Nausea ("morning sickness") can occur after two to eight weeks.

If pregnancy is suspected, testing should be done so that proper prenatal care can begin. It's important to avoid some behaviors during pregnancy, such as drinking alcohol or using certain drugs or medications, so an early diagnosis should be made.

Over-the-counter home pregnancy tests are available at any drugstore. A positive test is almost certainly correct, but a negative test in the face of other symptoms may be a false negative and should be tried again after a week.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: fatigue, nausea or vomiting, stomach bloating, bloody vaginal discharge, vaginal bleeding

Symptoms that always occur with possible pregnancy: missed period

Symptoms that never occur with possible pregnancy: painful urination, severe abdominal pain

Urgency: Self-treatment

Cyclic vomiting syndrome

Cyclic vomiting syndrome is characterized by episodes of severe vomiting that have no apparent cause. Episodes can last for hours or days and alternate with relatively symptom-free periods of time.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: fatigue, nausea, headache, abdominal pain (stomach ache), trouble sleeping

Symptoms that always occur with cyclic vomiting syndrome:episodic vomiting

Urgency: Primary care doctor


Bulimia is an eating disorder characterized by recurrent episodes of binge eating followed by compensatory behavior, such as self-induced vomiting, fasting, excessive exercise, or abuse of laxatives or diuretics.

Despite typically having a normal weight, people with bulimia are often persistently concerned with th..

Stomach twisting (gastric volvulus)

Gastric Volvulus is a serious condition where the stomach abnormally rotates within the belly, creating an obstruction cutting off flow of food and the flow of blood to the tissues. This condition can cause severe pain in the upper abdomen, and retching without vomiting.

Rarity: Ultra rare

Top Symptoms: nausea or vomiting, being severely ill, severe abdominal pain, vomiting, general abdominal pain

Symptoms that always occur with stomach twisting (gastric volvulus): being severely ill

Urgency: Emergency medical service

Esophageal perforation

An esophageal perforation is a hole in the esophagus. The esophagus is the tube food passes through as it goes from the mouth to the stomach.

Rarity: Ultra rare

Top Symptoms: being severely ill, shortness of breath, chest pain, fever, trouble swallowing

Symptoms that always occur with esophageal perforation: being severely ill

Urgency: Hospital emergency room

So... which condition is actually causing your retching?

Free, secure, and powered by Buoy advanced AI to get you the best way to better. Learn about our technology.

Retching treatments and relief

In most cases, a trip to the doctor is not required for retching. But there are a few things you should look out for.

When retching is an emergency

If any of the following occur, seek medical attention immediately.

  • Vision problems
  • Severe headache
  • Vomiting blood
  • Unable to eat or drink for an entire day

At-home treatments for retching

Here are some of the most effective treatments for dry heaves and retching.

  • Ginger tea: Ginger is an ancient remedy for gastrointestinal issues of all kinds. It's very soothing to the stomach. Try herbal ginger teas or add some raw or dried ginger to other soothing herbal teas like chamomile.
  • Peppermint: Peppermint is an herb that has been used for millennia to bring relief to pregnant women and other individuals suffering from nausea for all kinds of reasons. Peppermint soothes the stomach and gastrointestinal tract and can be very effective for relieving retching, especially peppermint herbal tea.
  • Relaxation and mindfulness: Stress is one cause of retching, and any kind of mindfulness exercises, meditation, or deep breathing exercises can help relax the body, mind, and the contracting diaphragm, bringing relief from retching/dry heaving.
  • Baking soda in water or an antacid: Often, just a teaspoon or two of baking soda in water or an antacid tablet can help alleviate acidity in the stomach and relieve heaves and retching.
  • Anti-emetics: Over-the-counter nausea medications can help with vomiting and dry heaves. Follow the specific directions for whatever particular OTC medication you have chosen for these.

FAQs about retching

Here are some frequently asked questions about retching.

Why am I retching in the morning?

Morning vomiting or retching can be a sign of pregnancy, also known as morning sickness, within the first trimester. Other much rarer causes of vomiting in the morning include especially in children a mass within the skull that can be benign or malignant.

Can anxiety cause retching?

Anxiety can cause retching. As the sympathetic nervous system is activated, it may cause a decrease of the parasympathetic nervous system and this may cause an expulsion of any food in the stomach of the anxious individual. It is relatively common, and if an individual is able to control his or her anxiety, the retching should abate.

Will retching harm my baby?

One of the most common causes of retching among infants is gastroesophageal reflux. It is a common disorder in healthy infants and usually resolves by the first year of life in most infants. The vomiting and retching are not harmful to the infant unless the infant is having difficulty feeding and gaining weight.

Why do I retch while brushing my teeth?

While brushing your teeth, you are likely touching an area of the tongue between the tonsils that is triggering the pharyngeal reflex or gag reflex. Contact with this area by the toothbrush hints to the body that something that is too large or too hard to travel down the esophagus is in the back of the throat. To avoid choking, the body triggers laryngeal spasm or a gag, completing the gag reflex.

What causes retching without vomiting?

Retching without vomiting can be caused by something triggering a gag reflex in a setting in which there is no further stimulus to the stomach. Retching without vomiting can also be caused if there is little or no substance left in the stomach to vomit. If an individual hasn't eaten or drank anything recently, they may be unable to vomit any substance and may retch until their reflex is complete.

Questions your doctor may ask about retching

  • Any fever today or during the last week?
  • Have you experienced any nausea?
  • Have you vomited?
  • Does light bother your eyes more than usual?

Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.

Share your story
Was this article helpful?
Read this next


  1. Miller AD. Respiratory Muscle Control During Vomiting. Canadian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology. 1990;68(2):237-241. NCBI Link
  2. Looking Out for Your Friends. Stanford University: Office of Alcohol Policy and Education. Stanford University Link
  3. Thomson ABR, Shaffer EA, eds. First Principles of Gastroenterology. 5th ed. Janssen-Ortho. Journal of the Canadian Association of Gastroenterology Link
  4. Nausea and Vomiting. Mayo Clinic. Published June 30, 2018. Mayo Clinic Link
  5. NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms. National Cancer Institute. NCI Link
  6. Samborski P, Chmielarz-Czarnociska A, Grzymisawski M. Exercise-Induced Vomiting. Przeglad Gastroenterologiczny. 2013;8(6):396-400. NCBI Link
  7. Cyclical Vomiting Syndrome. NHS. Updated August 16, 2017. NHS Link
  8. Aung TY, Soo S. Drugs Induced Nausea and Vomiting: An Overview. IOSR Journal of Pharmacy and Biological Sciences. 2016;11(3):5-9. IOSR Journals Link
  9. Vomiting Without Diarrhea. Seattle Children's Hospital. Updated November 8, 2018. Seattle Children's Hospital Link
  10. Pertussis. Nationwide Children's Hospital. Nationwide Children's Hospital Link
  11. O'Brien B, Zhou Q. Variables Related to Nausea and Vomiting During Pregnancy. Birth. 1995;22(2):93-100. NCBI Link
  12. Gerszberg D. 8 Tips for Managing Chemotherapy-Induced Nausea. ColumbiaDoctors. ColumbiaDoctors Link
  13. Non-Drug Treatments for Nausea and Vomiting. American Cancer Society. Updated February 13, 2017. American Cancer Society Link
  14. Sodium Bicarbonate (Oral Route, Intravenous Route, Subcutaneous Route). Mayo Clinic. Mayo Clinic Link