Nausea is very common symptom that is associated with a wide range of health conditions, referring to the physical discomfort that gives a person the feeling that they may be about to vomit.
Often the cause of vomiting or nausea can be determined fairly easily by looking back at a person’s recent actions (such as a particularly stressful day, or that gas station sushi s/he ate for lunch). But there are times when nausea and vomiting are very serious.
Knowing how to recognize when it’s time to see doctor can be the difference between a quick recovery and a life-threatening situation.
What’s serious enough to warrant a doctor or ER visit depends on age and condition. Here is a breakdown of what warning signs to look for by group:
When a child is nauseous, the most common causes are overeating, motion sickness, blocked intestines, milk allergy, viral infections, food poisoning, or illness with a high fever. Another common cause is dehydration, particularly for those too young to communicate the symptoms.
If a child is nauseous and vomiting, look for these signs that s/he needs to seek emergency treatment:
- Vomiting lasts longer than 24 hours, or longer than 12 hours for infants under 2
- S/he shows symptoms of dehydration (dry lips, drymouth, sunken eyes, rapid breathing or rapid pulse)
- S/he hasn’t urinated for longer than six hours
- S/he is confused or lethargic
- S/he has a fever of 102°F or higher for children 6 or older (100°F for infants)
- Any infant with both vomiting and diarrhea
- Any time an infant has projectile vomiting
- If a child has vomited continuously for more than two hours
- S/he hasn’t been able to keep liquids down for eight hours
When an adult feels nauseous, it’s usually easy to determine the cause—motion sickness, food poisoning, a virus, or emotional stress are common triggers.
Most of these causes are not serious, and pass within a matter of hours. But there are times when it is important to seek emergency treatment. On occasion, extensive vomiting can serious damage the esophagus.
An adult should seek medical treatment if:
- S/he suffers from nausea for more than seven days
- S/he shows signs of dehydration
- She suspects she could be pregnant
- If there is a known injury such as a head injury or infection
- If vomiting continues for more than 24 hours
- Blood is in the vomit (red or something appearing like coffee grounds)
- If the person experiences a stiff neck or headache
- S/he is lethargic, confused or lacking alertness
- S/he has abdominal pain
- S/he is unable to eat or drink for 12 hours
Nausea is common during pregnancy, especially early on. However, frequent vomiting can lead to hyperemesis gravidarum, a condition in which a fluid and mineral imbalance develops. This is a serious medical condition that can endanger the fetus.
If this nausea is affecting a woman’s everyday life, it’s worth discussing with a doctor, but if an expecting mother experiences any of these, she should seek medical attention right away:
- She vomits several times a day
- She is unable to eat or drink without vomiting
- She is losing weight
For cancer patients undergoing radiation or chemotherapy, nausea is very common. Patients should be aware of associated risks including dehydration and choking, and always call your cancer team in the following situations:
- The patient may have inhaled some of the vomit
- S/he vomits more than three times an hour, for longer than three hours
- Blood, red, or a coffee grounds-like substance appears in the vomit
- S/he can’t eat for more than two days, or can’t consume more than 4 cups of liquid or ice chips for more than one day
- The patient cannot take his/her medications
- S/he shows signs of dehydration
- S/he loses two pounds or more within 48 hours or less
Know the Signs and Risks
Most of the time, nausea is not a serious health threat, and it generally passes within a matter of hours. But nausea is a symptom for a wide range of conditions, from anxiety to a concussion.
While some of the most serious causes of nausea are rarer, there are some situations in which a nauseous and vomiting individual requires immediate medical care. Know the signs to keep you and your loved ones safe, and when in doubt, seek assistance.