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Cyclic vomiting syndrome (CVS) is characterized by episodes or cycles of severe nausea and vomiting that last for hours, or even days, that alternate with intervals with no symptoms. Although originally thought to be a pediatric disease, CVS occurs in all age groups. Medical researchers believe CVS and migraine headaches are related (see CVS and Migraine).
Each episode of CVS is similar to previous ones, meaning the episodes tend to start at the same time of day, last the same length of time, and occur with the same symptoms and level of intensity. Although CVS can begin at any age, in children it starts most often between the ages of 3 and 7.
Episodes can be so severe that a person has to stay in bed for days, unable to go to school or work. The exact number of people with CVS is unknown, but medical researchers believe more people may have the disorder than commonly thought. Because other more common diseases and disorders also cause cycles of vomiting, many people with CVS are initially misdiagnosed until other disorders can be ruled out. CVS can be disruptive and frightening not just to people who have it but to family members as well.
Four Phases and Triggers
CVS has four phases:
Many people can identify a specific condition or event that triggered an episode, such as an infection. Common triggers in children include emotional stress and excitement. Anxiety and panic attacks are more common triggers in adults. Colds, allergies, sinus problems, and the flu can also set off episodes in some people.
Other reported triggers include eating certain foods such as chocolate or cheese, eating too much, or eating just before going to bed. Hot weather, physical exhaustion, menstruation, and motion sickness can also trigger episodes.
A person who experiences the following symptoms for at least 3 months—with first onset at least 6 months prior—may have CVS:
A person with CVS may experience abdominal pain, diarrhea, fever, dizziness, and sensitivity to light during vomiting episodes. Continued vomiting may cause severe dehydration that can be life threatening. Symptoms of dehydration include thirst, decreased urination, paleness, exhaustion, and listlessness. A person with any symptoms of dehydration should see a health care provider immediately.
CVS is hard to diagnose because no tests—such as a blood test or x ray—can establish a diagnosis of CVS. A doctor must look at symptoms and medical history to rule out other common diseases or disorders that can cause nausea and vomiting. Making a diagnosis takes time because the doctor also needs to identify a pattern or cycle to the vomiting.
CVS and Migraine
The relationship between migraine and CVS is still unclear, but medical researchers believe the two are related.
Because of the similarities between migraine and CVS, doctors treat some people with severe CVS with drugs that are also used for migraine headaches. The drugs are designed to prevent episodes, reduce frequency, and lessen severity.