Vomiting can be caused by a wide variety of conditions; it may present as a specific response to ailments like gastritis or poisoning, or as a non-specific sequela of disorders ranging from brain tumors and elevated intracranial pressure to overexposure to ionizing radiation. The feeling that one is about to vomit is called nausea, which often precedes, but does not always lead to, vomiting. Antiemetics are sometimes necessary to suppress nausea and vomiting. In severe cases, where dehydration develops, intravenous fluid may be required. Self-induced vomiting can be a component of an eating disorder, such as bulimia nervosa, and is itself now an eating disorder on its own, purging disorder.
Vomiting is different from regurgitation, although the two terms are often used interchangeably. Regurgitation is the return of undigested food back up the esophagus to the mouth, without the force and displeasure associated with vomiting. The causes of vomiting and regurgitation are generally different.
Vomiting can be dangerous if the gastric content enters the respiratory tract. Under normal circumstances the gag reflex and coughing prevent this from occurring; however, these protective reflexes are compromised in persons under the influences of certain substances such as alcohol or anesthesia. The individual may choke and asphyxiate or suffer an aspiration pneumonia.
Prolonged and excessive vomiting depletes the body of water (dehydration), and may alter the electrolyte status. Gastric vomiting leads to the loss of acid (protons) and chloride directly. Combined with the resulting alkaline tide, this leads to hypochloremic metabolic alkalosis (low chloride levels together with high HCO−
3 and CO
2 and increased blood pH) and often hypokalemia (potassium depletion). The hypokalemia is an indirect result of the kidney compensating for the loss of acid. With the loss of intake of food the individual may eventually become cachectic. A less frequent occurrence results from a vomiting of intestinal contents, including bile acids and HCO−
3, which can cause metabolic acidosis.
Repeated or profuse vomiting may cause erosions to the esophagus or small tears in the esophageal mucosa (Mallory–Weiss tear). This may become apparent if fresh red blood is mixed with vomit after several episodes.