I have cough variant asthma, which means that I tend to cough a lot at the slightest stimuli. Cold weather and exercise sometimes cause an attack, but I more often cough when I’m exposed to certain allergens like pollen or dust. Unfortunately, like many Americans, I also frequently suffer from acid reflux. Acid reflux can also cause fits of coughing, especially in the morning. And sometimes, those coughing episodes can become so intense that I suddenly vomit, even though I didn’t have an upset stomach.
How can a cough lead to vomiting?
In order to answer that question, it helps to take a look at what causes a person to vomit. When people think of what causes vomiting, they usually think of a person eating or drinking something they shouldn’t have. A person might drink too much alcohol or eat too much rich food, become nauseated, salivate a bit, and then vomit up the contents of their stomach. Vomiting can also be caused by certain diseases or by ingesting a poisonous substance. When vomiting is caused under these circumstances, there’s usually some warning beforehand in the form of feeling sick to one’s stomach.
The human brain has what’s called the “area postrema”, also commonly referred to as the “vomiting center”. This medullary structure located controls the function of vomiting, among other things. Sometimes, when a substance causes a person to start to violently cough and gag, the vomiting center is also overstimulated, leading to the sudden and uncontrollable urge to throw up.
When vomiting is caused by coughing, it’s like the reflex that causes a person to sneeze. Sneezes often come on very suddenly and they serve an important purpose, to quickly and effectively get rid of invaders that might harm the body by entering though the nose. Coughing, likewise, protects the lungs from invaders by noisily and forcefully expelling air and the irritants within them. And vomiting protects the digestive tract from invaders by forcefully ejecting the contents of the stomach.
What should you do if you have a cough that leads to vomiting?
If you’ve just experienced coughing that leads to vomiting for the first time, you should call your doctor for an appointment. Violent coughing can be caused by a number of different disorders that range from pertussis (whooping cough), to asthma, to even the aftermath of a nasty cold. Sometimes extreme coughing is caused by post nasal drip, an annoying but usually relatively harmless problem that develops after an upper respiratory infection like a cold or exposure to seasonal allergens. However, it can also be caused by more serious conditions such as asthma, acid reflux disease, or perhaps, a bacterial or viral infection that isn’t a common cold and needs medical treatment from a health care professional.
Your doctor will want to rule out any potentially serious problems that would cause coughing violent enough to lead to retching and vomiting. It’s also possible that your physician can give you medication that will calm or eliminate your cough. Too much violent coughing can damage the chest wall, just as too much vomiting can injure the esophagus or damage tooth enamel. Coughing that leads to vomiting is also potentially embarrassing. You certainly wouldn’t want it to happen on a first date or during a job interview.
Unfortunately, in my case, coughing that leads to vomiting happens more often than I’d like it to, especially during allergy season. I tend to experience my worst coughing fits at night, when I’m lying down to go to sleep, or first thing in the morning. It can be a real bummer. For now, I try to prevent it by avoiding things that I know make me cough and controlling heartburn and acid reflux.