Vomiting is one of the body’s natural defenses against germs, poisons, and drugs. Some people wish to induce vomiting to relieve nausea from illness or substances. Others induce it if they think they overate — this is a sign of an eating disorder.

Eating disorders can severely affect the quality of life of people living with these conditions and those close to them. Early intervention and treatment greatly improve the likelihood of recovery.

Anyone who suspects that they or a loved one has an eating disorder can contact the National Eating Disorder Association for advice and support via:

  • phone or text at 800-931-2237
  • online chat, by going to this link

These services are only open during specific hours. Someone in crisis can text “NEDA” to 741741 at any time to get support from a trained volunteer at Crisis Text Line.

Alternatively, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) run a Disaster Distress Helpline that people can contact on 800-985-5990 for 24-7 support.

Many other resources are available, including:

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 ipecac syrup when they suspect poisoning or believe that the child ate rotten food. Instead, they should go to the emergency room or contact a poison control center.

Research 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.

Vomiting is usually induced by triggering the gag reflex using the fingers or another object.

A person typically washes their hands thoroughly and positions themselves in front of a toilet or sink. The index and middle fingers are inserted into the throat to trigger the gag reflex, which causes gagging, followed by vomiting.

Some research indicates that drinking water before vomiting may help prevent tooth damage associated with vomiting. It is also best to rinse or gargle with water and avoid brushing the teeth immediately after vomiting, as this could worsen damage.

However, keep in mind that a person should not induce vomiting unless directed by a doctor, as it can be dangerous and may cause serious side effects.

There are several reasons why a person may want to induce vomiting. Some of the most common reasons include:

  • after consuming something harmful or poisonous
  • when feeling sick or nauseous
  • due to feelings of shame, self-loathing, or guilt after eating, which is a sign of an eating disorder

But it is important to remember that a person should not induce vomiting unless instructed by a doctor.

Self-induced vomiting may be associated with potential risks, including dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, and damage to the throat, teeth, or gums.

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 ipecac syrup 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 emphasized that ipecac syrup 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:

  • dehydration
  • malnourishment
  • 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

The right treatment for nausea depends on the cause. People who feel nauseated because of a stomach virus may find relief by 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 stomachs are 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 get emergency medical care instead.

Anyone who thinks that they or a child might have swallowed something harmful should get 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
  • preparing to list any medications that the person takes

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 with a trusted loved one and ask a doctor for support. Treatment can include:

  • medical care to cope 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 concerns
  • 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 people who do not want inpatient care or cannot take time off work or school, therapy and medical management often work well.

Eating disorders can often involve higher deaths than most other mental health conditions. According to a 2020 research review, the risk of premature death was two times higher for people who received treatment for bulimia nervosa compared with the general population.

It is important to know that getting 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. People who believe that they ate something poisonous need to get immediate emergency care.