This information is taken from a chapter on emetophobia in our book, Overcoming Health Anxiety.
A specific phobia of vomiting is a condition that is often misunderstood. It is also known as emetophobia. This webpage aims to help you understand phobia of vomiting – its causes, effects and treatments.
What is a phobia of vomiting?
A phobia of vomiting is a condition where an individual fears vomiting or others vomiting (but commonly both). You may often feel sick but vomit phobics are not actually sick any more than someone without a phobia of vomiting. It may become a preoccupation and the only thing you think about. It may be linked to a fear that you will lose control, become very ill, faint or that others will find you repulsive. As a result you try too hard to avoid a wide range of situations or activities that you might believe might increase of risk vomiting. These include being near drunks; going on a fairground ride; being near people who are ill; travelling by boat; going on holidays abroad; travelling by aeroplane; drinking alcohol; going into crowded places or using public transport; or eating certain foods. Some people with vomit phobia have avoided general anaesthetic for surgery. Many women with phobia of vomiting have avoided getting pregnant or terminated a pregnancy. Women with babies might experience a great deal of distress about their child vomiting.
You might excessively check the sell-by date of foods in a shop or eat only small amounts of food. You might be excessive hygienic; check the health of yourself & others; use superstitious behaviours; seek reassurance about whether others are ill or could be sick; or excessively clean the kitchen area. If you think you are going to vomit, then might look for an escape route; try to keep tight control of your behaviour, take anti-nausea medication or suck a sweet. All these are called “safety seeking behaviours” and maintain your fear as you never find out whether you need to use them or not and increase your fear.
When does a concern with vomiting become a phobia?
Many people are fearful of vomiting to a certain extent, but to be diagnosed with phobia of vomiting it must be very distressing and have an important effect on your life. For example, it may interfere with an important relationship or your social life and cause significant handicap.
How common is a phobia of vomiting?
It’s hard to say as there have been no large-scale surveys conducted. Many people with a phobia of vomiting are often too ashamed to talk about their problem or feel very misunderstood. The best estimate is about 0.1 to 0.2% of the population. This is different to a fear of vomiting which is more common.
What causes a phobia of vomiting?
There is virtually no research into the cause of vomit phobia. Causes are thought to be psychological and biological. There might be a genetic influence in vomit phobia. It usually develops in childhood, sometimes after a bad experience of vomiting. Once a phobia develops it is maintained by the way avoid anything linked to vomiting. It is much more likely to occur in women.
Is a phobia of vomiting linked to other condition?
You may feel demoralised or clinically depressed. Some sufferers restrict their food believing that a range of food may cause vomiting. You may then become very underweight and be misdiagnosed with anorexia nervosa.
How is the condition likely to progress?
No long term follow studies have been done. Many people with phobia of vomiting have a chronic condition. If left untreated, then the condition is likely to persist.
What treatments are available?
If you feel that you or a close relative are affected by phobia of vomiting and would like help or more information, contacting your GP is often the easiest way to get help and further treatment. He or she may refer you to cognitive behaviour therapy for further assessment. This may lead to outpatient treatment or, if more serious in-patient treatment.
Details of obtaining national specialist treatment (1) privately at The Priory Hospital North London are on this website or (2) NHS appointment at the Bethlem Royal are also on this website.
If you’re worried about talking to your GP, consider writing down your concerns and questions. You can:
- take a friend or family member with you to act as an advocate
- see another doctor in the practice; or
- join a new GP practice.
NHS Direct can offer you advice on moving to a new practice. You can visit the website at www.nhsdirect.nhs.uk or phone them on 0845 4647.
There has been very little research or controlled trials on the treatment of a phobia of vomiting. The most likely treatments offered are cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) and medication.
What is CBT?
Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) is based on a structured programme of self-help, which focuses on the way you think and act. Some work may need to be done on memories of vomiting in the past. After this, it is best treated by “graded exposure” or learning to face up to the situations or activities you are avoiding and to drop all the excessive safety behaviours, which you believe reduces the likelihood of vomiting. Facing your fear will get easier and easier to face up to your fear and your anxiety will tend to reduce.
What about medication?
Anti-nausea medication is usually unhelpful in the long term as it reinforces the idea that you can control yourself from vomiting. Sometimes a type of anti-depressant called an SSRI may be prescribed that can reduce anxiety or treat other problems such as depression. There is no evidence from controlled trials that medication is of any benefit in vomit phobia.
Does treatment work?
Treatment works for many sufferers if they are prepared to do the homework and to test out some of their worries. Some sufferers may feel well for a time then go back to old behaviours, while others remain chronically ill.
Support Groups in emetophobia
Our specialist clinics for emetophobia are at the Maudsley Hospital for out-patients and a residential unit at the Bethlem Royal Hospital, Beckenham, Kent. A specialist service for adolescents is at the Maudsley Hospital, London