Vomiting is one of the body’s natural defenses against germs, poisons, and drugs. Some people wish to induce vomiting to relieve nausea, whether the cause is an illness or a substance such as alcohol. Others induce vomiting if they believe that they have overeaten — this is a sign of an eating disorder.
However, vomiting carries risks. In particular, it is not safe to induce vomiting to prevent or treat poisoning.
People used to induce vomiting in children who swallowed poison. Parents and caregivers should not gag children or give them syrup of ipecac when they suspect poisoning or believe that the child has eaten rotten food. Instead, they should go to the emergency room or contact a poison control center.
Research now suggests that inducing vomiting may delay or reduce the effectiveness of treatment. Additionally, vomiting after consuming certain poisons can increase the risk of serious complications.
In this article, learn more about the safety and risks of inducing vomiting.
Safety and risks
Inducing vomiting may cause injuries to the esophagus, throat, and mouth.
It is not safe to induce vomiting to treat poisoning. When a person vomits some poisons, such as acids, this increases the risk of burns and other injuries to the esophagus, throat, and mouth.
In addition to poisoning, there might be other scenarios in which a person wants to induce vomiting. For instance, they may have an eating disorder or feel nauseated due to a stomach virus.
Vomiting always carries risks, and there is no medical reason for a person to induce vomiting just because they feel nauseated.
Vomiting also does not fully empty the stomach. Even if a person can safely vomit, vomiting will not remove the full dose of poison or the other contents of the stomach.
Drugs such as syrup of ipecac can decrease the effectiveness of other poisoning treatments, such as activated charcoal. The use of these drugs may also cause a person to delay getting treatment, especially if vomiting temporarily alleviates nausea.
Some emetics — drugs to induce vomiting — can themselves be poisonous. Sodium chloride, for example, can cause dangerous electrolyte imbalances. It is also lethal at doses of 3 grams per kilogram of body weight and above.
A 2013 position paper update by the European Association of Poison Centres and Clinical Toxicologists emphasizes that syrup of ipecac may be appropriate in some rare poisoning cases. However, it is not safe to administer it without a doctor’s supervision.
Some risks of vomiting include:
- electrolyte imbalances that may damage the heart and other organs
- damage to the teeth and gums
- injury to the throat or esophagus
- pancreatitis, a dangerous swelling of the pancreas
What to do to treat poisoning
Anyone who thinks that they or a child might have swallowed something harmful should seek immediate medical care by contacting a local poison control center or going to the emergency room.
The more information that a person can provide about the poisoning, the easier it will be for a doctor to treat them.
The following strategies can improve treatment outcomes:
- keeping the bottle of the suspected poison to show the doctor
- writing down approximately how much the person swallowed, if possible
- logging anything else that the person recently ate or drank
- being prepared to list any medications that the person takes
What to do to alleviate nausea
The right treatment for nausea depends on the cause. People who feel nauseated because of a stomach virus may find relief from avoiding food until the vomiting stops.
They can try drinking small quantities of water or an electrolyte drink and then gradually begin eating as their symptoms improve. It is best to start with bland, easily digestible foods, such as unbuttered toast.
Some other strategies that may help with nausea, including nausea from cancer, pregnancy, and illnesses, include:
- eating small meals throughout the day because some people feel nauseated when their stomach is empty
- sucking on ginger or peppermint hard candies
- identifying and avoiding triggers for nausea as some people find that specific smells or food textures make them feel sick
- sitting upright for an hour after eating
Prolonged vomiting can cause serious and even life threatening complications, so it is important to tell a doctor about any vomiting that lasts longer than a few days. In many cases, a doctor may be able to prescribe an antiemetic drug, which can reduce nausea and vomiting.
A person who feels nauseated after drinking poison or another harmful substance should not try to treat the nausea. Reducing nausea will not reverse poisoning. It is essential to seek emergency medical care instead.
How to seek help for an eating disorder
A person with an eating disorder may benefit from therapy.
People who feel compelled to vomit because of shame, self-loathing, or fears about weight gain may have a condition called bulimia nervosa.
Some people with eating disorders fear stigma or judgment, but eating disorders are treatable medical conditions.
People can talk to a trusted loved one and ask a doctor for support. Treatment usually includes:
- medical care to deal with the health effects of bulimia
- nutritional counseling to help a person eat a balanced diet
- therapy to deal with underlying self-esteem and mental health issues
- family support, such as family counseling
- education about eating disorders
- participation in a support group
Some people find inpatient treatment the most beneficial approach because it offers comprehensive care in a safe environment.
For those who do not want inpatient care or cannot take time off work or school, therapy and medical management often work well.
Eating disorders have higher mortality rates than most other mental health conditions. A study that followed 906 people with bulimia for 19 years found that 3.9% died during the follow-up period. Seeking treatment for an eating disorder can be lifesaving.
There is no medical reason to induce vomiting without guidance from a doctor. Inducing vomiting without a compelling medical reason and a doctor’s supervision can be dangerous.
In some cases, it may even make the effects of poisoning or an underlying medical condition worse.
People concerned about nausea should ask a doctor about treatment options. Those who believe that they have eaten something poisonous need to seek immediate emergency care.