Although nausea and vomiting are typically caused by gastrointestinal disorders, the clinician must consider systemic causes as well. Neurologic, infectious, cardiac, endocrine, renal, obstetric, pharmacologic, toxicologic, and psychiatric disorders may all be the cause of nausea and vomiting. A comprehensive history and physical examination, as well as the use of various diagnostic modalities, are needed to determine the cause and its complications.
History is essential in determining the cause of vomiting. Important features to elicit include the onset and duration of symptoms, the frequency and timing of episodes, the content of the vomitus (e.g., undigested food, bile-tinged, feculent), associated symptoms (e.g., fever, abdominal pain, diarrhea), exposure to foodborne pathogens, and the presence of sick contacts. A thorough past medical and surgical history (e.g., prior abdominal surgery) will also be valuable. Review the patient's medication list, as a variety of agents in therapeutic or toxic doses can trigger nausea and vomiting. The physical examination should initially focus on determining the presence or absence of a critical, life-threatening condition. Hypotension, tachycardia, lethargy, poor skin turgor, dry mucous membranes, and delayed capillary refill suggest significant dehydration. A careful abdominal examination will help clarify the presence or absence of a primary GI etiology. The extent to which the balance of the physical examination will be of value will be dictated by the history. In the event that a reliable history is not available (e.g., drug overdose, cognitive impairment), a comprehensive physical examination is warranted.
DIAGNOSIS AND DIFFERENTIAL
Vomiting with blood could represent gastritis, peptic ulcer disease, or carcinoma. However, aggressive nonbloody vomiting followed by hematemesis is more consistent with a Mallory-Weiss tear. The presence of bile rules out gastric outlet obstruction, such as from pyloric stenosis or strictures. The presence of abdominal distension, surgical scars, or an incarcerated hernia suggests a small bowel obstruction. The presence of fever would suggest an infectious (e.g., gastroenteritis, appendicitis, cholecystitis) or inflammatory cause. Vomiting with chest pain suggests myocardial infarction. Post-tussive vomiting suggests pneumonia. Vomiting with back or flank pain can be seen with aortic aneurysm or dissection, pancreatitis, pyelonephritis or renal colic. Headache with vomiting suggests increased intracranial pressure, such as with subarachnoid hemorrhage, tumor, or head injury. The presence of vertigo and nystagmus suggests either vestibular or CNS pathology. Vomiting in a pregnant patient is consistent with hyperemesis gravidarum in the first trimester; but in the third trimester, could represent preeclampsia if accompanied by hypertension. Associated medical conditions are also useful in discerning the cause of vomiting: diabetes mellitus suggests ketoacidosis, peripheral vascular disease suggests mesenteric ischemia, and medication use or overdose (e.g., lithium or digoxin) suggests toxicity.
All women of childbearing age warrant a pregnancy test. In vomiting associated with abdominal pain, liver function tests, urinalysis, and lipase or amylase determinations may be useful. Electrolyte determinations and renal function tests are usually of benefit only in patients with ...