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Causes of Vomiting and Severe Stomach Cramps

by 
author image Dr. Tina M. St. John
Dr. Tina M. St. John owns and operates a health communications and consulting firm. She is also an accomplished medical writer and editor, and was formerly a senior medical officer with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. St. John holds an M.D. from Emory University School of Medicine.
Causes of Vomiting and Severe Stomach Cramps
Causes of Vomiting and Severe Stomach Cramps Photo Credit: AndreyPopov/iStock/GettyImages

Vomiting and stomach cramps typically signal a problem in the upper portion of the digestive system, namely the stomach and small intestine. Although commonly referred to as stomach cramps, this type of pain usually arises from the intestines. Illnesses caused by ingesting contaminated food, water or other beverages are the leading cause these symptoms. A bowel blockage is another important consideration with vomiting and severe abdominal cramps.

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Foodborne Illnesses

An estimated 48 million Americans are sickened with a foodborne illness each year, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Vomiting and crampy abdominal pain, usually accompanied by diarrhea, are characteristic features of food poisoning caused by certain infectious agents.

Norovirus Infection

An estimated 19 to 21 million cases of norovirus gastroenteritis occur each year in the US, according to CDC. People become infected by eating contaminated food or coming into contact with contaminated surfaces and subsequently getting the virus into their mouth. Because of the highly contagious nature of norovirus, it tends to cause outbreaks. Symptoms typically begin within 12 to 48 hours after exposure to the virus. A study published in January 2010 in Clinical Microbiology and Infection reported that vomiting and abdominal pain occur in 65 percent and 67 percent of people with norovirus, respectively. Norovirus gastroenteritis typically goes away within 1 to 3 days.

Staph Food Poisoning

Staph food poisoning occurs due to eating foods contaminated with toxins produced by Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. Because the toxins cause the illness, it is not passed from one person to another. However, outbreaks occur when people eat the same contaminated food. The foods most likely to cause staph food poisoning are those that are handled and then eaten without cooking. Examples include filled pastries, egg and potato salad, deviled eggs and sandwich meats. Symptoms include crampy abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, which begin 1 to 6 hours after eating food contaminated S. aureus toxins. The illness lasts for about 24 hours, ending when all of the toxins have been expelled from the digestive system.

Bacillus cereus Emetic Syndrome

Bacillus cereus causes two foodborne illnesses, an emetic form that causes vomiting and a diarrheal form. In addition to nausea and vomiting, B. cereus emetic syndrome causes abdominal cramps. Like staph food poisoning, the emetic syndrome occurs due to eating food contaminated with toxins produced by B. cereus bacteria. Symptoms begin 1 to 6 hours after ingestion of the contaminated food and persist for no longer than 24 hours.

Other Foodborne Infections

Vomiting can occur with other foodborne infections, although diarrhea and crampy abdominal pain are typically more prominent symptoms. Examples of germs that can cause these infections include Campylobacter jejuni, Clostridium perfringens, Vibrio parahaemolyticus, Salmonella, Shigella and E. coli.

Bowel Blockage

Vomiting and severe, intermittent abdominal cramps are hallmark symptoms of a bowel blockage, especially one involving the small intestine. The vomited material typically contains yellow bile and partially digested food when the blockage occurs in the part of the small bowel closest to the stomach. When the blockage occurs close to the colon, the vomited material often resembles fecal matter. Vomiting sometimes occurs with a large bowel blockage but much less frequently than with a small bowel obstruction. Other characteristic symptoms of a bowel blockage include abdominal distention and constipation. Underlying causes of a bowel blockage include:

  • Hernia
  • Scarring caused by peptic ulcers
  • Scar tissue formation following abdominal or pelvic surgery
  • Meckel diverticulum, an outpouching of the small bowel present from birth
  • Cancer of the small bowel or pancreas

Warnings and Precautions

If you experience sudden nausea and vomiting with abdominal cramps and diarrhea, food poisoning is the most likely culprit. Medical treatment is usually not necessary if you are otherwise healthy. However, it's best to call your doctor if you are a senior and/or have diabetes, a weakened immune system or another chronic illness.

Seek immediate medical care if you experience symptoms that might indicate a bowel blockage, namely sudden progressively severe abdominal cramps accompanied by vomiting and abdominal bloating without diarrhea.

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