When to Call the Doctor: Vomiting

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It’s tough to know when to call or visit the doctor when you’re sick, even more so if you have a young child who's ill. Vomiting is a symptom that stems from a number of different conditions. While the cause is most likely a non-life threatening illness, it might be an indicator of a severe issue. What you may think is a common stomach bug could be something much more severe that requires immediate attention. Here is the 101 on all things vomit.

What are the most common reasons for vomiting?

There are a variety of things that will cause vomiting on different occasions. Several common causes of vomiting are:


Influenza is a highly contagious infection that affects the respiratory system causing high fever, aches, sore throat and runny or stuffy nose. Some people with influenza may also experience vomiting and diarrhea, which is more common in children than adults. It’s important to recognize the warning signs that coincide with an emergency situation that stems from influenza or other illness. 

Cyclic Vomiting Disorder

Cyclic vomiting disorder is when severe vomiting takes place at approximately the same time each day and lasts for around the same length of time. Although once thought only to affect children, it has been found in adults as well. While some individuals can't pinpoint a specific trigger to cause cyclic vomiting, others can. According to the Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome Association, several known triggers include:

If you experience any of these symptoms, contact your doctor immediately to help control the disorder.

Brain Injury

If you’ve recently suffered a head injury and have experienced vomiting afterward, consult a doctor as soon as possible. Repeated vomiting can be an early indication of a severe brain injury. If ignored serious issues from brain damage can cause permanent damage or could be fatal. Your chances of developing epilepsy double after an acute brain injury such as a concussion. Intense migraines could occur in the weeks and possibly months to follow. If you have severe vomiting after a head injury, it is important to call or visit a doctor.


Migraines and headaches may cause discomfort that leads to nausea and vomiting. If these symptoms happen, don’t waste any time contacting your physician. The sooner you can find a solution, the better.

Food Poisoning

Signs of food poisoning can begin in the first hours or days following ingestion. Severe vomiting is one sign of food poisoning. If vomiting continues with no relief, seek medical attention right away.


Morning sickness is a common occurrence in pregnant women. Some women never experience morning sickness but for those that do, it can be exhausting and dangerous. If you experience severe vomiting that leads to dehydration, contact your doctor immediately. When you become dehydrated, so does your baby.

What does the color of my vomit mean?

Different shades of vomit mean different things. Knowing what each color means can make an enormous difference in the care you seek. Here are the most common colors of vomit and what you should know about each one.

Green or Yellow Vomit

Green or yellow vomit, also known as bile, is produced by the liver and stored in the gallbladder. The release of bile occurs when an individual is vomiting on an empty stomach or is suffering from bile reflux.

Orange Vomit

The first few hours of vomiting usually appear as orange in color. Orange vomit is the result of food not yet making it through the digestive system. It is typically not concerning enough to reach out to your physician unless vomiting continues for an extended period.

Red Vomit (hematemesis)

Blood from your mouth, throat and teeth may be in your vomit and is not a cause for alarm. When you have a significant amount of vomit that is bright red in color or resembles coffee grounds, you should contact your doctor immediately. This can be the result of multiple conditions including, but not limited to:

  • Liver failure
  • Cancer of the stomach, pancreas, or esophagus
  • Benign tumors of the esophagus or stomach
  • Tears in the esophagus from coughing or vomiting 
  • When caring for an infant or toddler that has blood in their vomit, it may be a result of a milk allergy, swallowed blood, birth defects, or blood clotting disorders.

Contact your physician to determine the severity of your child’s illness.

Brown Vomit

Severe constipation can cause intense abdominal pain, bloating of the stomach and intense vomiting. Because of bowel backup, digestion is nearly impossible. Brown vomit smelling similar to fecal matter will be an indication of this problem. Reach out to your doctor immediately to find a solution for this condition.

When should I call the doctor?


  • Pain in the chest or abdomen
  • Lightheadedness 
  • Persistent vomiting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Recurrent flu-like symptoms that are significantly worse than before

Children & Infants

Caring for a sick infant or toddler can be extremely challenging, especially with limited communication. The most common reason for a child vomiting is gastroenteritis or the stomach flu. The Center for Disease and Prevention (CDC) states that 4 out of 5 children will contract the stomach flu before the age of five. If you notice any of the following signs in your infant, toddler or teen, contact your primary care provider.

  • Not drinking or eating
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fever accompanied with a rash
  • Extreme drowsiness or lack of interaction
  • Irritability 
  • Flu-like symptoms that return worse than before
  • Unable to eat or keep food down
  • Signs of dehydration 
    • No tears when crying
    • No wet diapers
    • No saliva in the mouth

If you have questions or concerns regarding any of the previous information, reach out to your primary care provider by using our MyUnityPoint patient portal. MyUnityPoint is a secure way to communicate with your primary care physician and access your medical records online. If you're experiencing any of the symptoms listed above, save your spot online and visit one of our walk-in care clinics near you.

Do You Think You Need To See a Doctor Right Now?

Virtual urgent care allows you to speak to a provider by secure online video in real time or use our online screening tool, Smart Exam, to get a diagnosis and treatment plan in less than an hour. Virtual urgent care services are available for individuals ages two and up who live in Iowa. 

You can also log-in to MyUnityPoint to see if your provider, or their care team, has any same-day appointments available.

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