PatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.
Cyclical vomiting syndrome (CVS) is a condition in which there are repeated episodes of severe nausea, vomiting and physical exhaustion. This condition can be very disruptive and frightening for the individual and also for their families.
- This condition is more common in children, although it can present in adulthood.
- The true incidence of this condition is unknown. It is rare and thought to occur in around 3 out of 100,000 children although its true incidence may be greater than this.
- The average age of first presentation is 5 years.
- Females are affected slightly more than males.
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- There is no known cause for this condition.
- It is more common in those who have migraines; around 80% of children and 25% of adults who develop CVS also have migraines.
- There is an overlap between CVS and abdominal migraine. Some research has suggested that this syndrome is a condition related to migraine.
- This condition is more common in those people with a family history of migraine.
- The pathogenesis of this syndrome is likely to be multifactorial, with multiple genetic, autonomic, central and environmental factors playing a role.
- This condition appears to belong to a spectrum of cyclical disorders which may have a genetic link.
- The clinical features of this syndrome resemble those found in association with migraine headaches.
- The main symptoms are severe nausea and sudden vomiting which can last from a few hours to a few days.
- There are four phases of the cycle - prodromal, vomiting, recovery and well phases.
- The prodromal phase can often be marked by intense sweating and nausea. The person may also look very pale. This phase generally lasts from a few minutes to several hours.
- The vomiting phase then follows which can last from hours to days. Nausea, vomiting and retching last for 20 to 30 minutes at a time.
- The recovery phase begins with cessation of vomiting and retching, improving appetite and return of energy.
- The final phase of this illness is a phase of wellness when the patient is symptom-free.
- The following symptoms may also occur:
- Lack of appetite
- Abdominal pain
- The severity of episodes varies between cases.
- 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.
- Some people even need hospital admission during episodes.
- The following may trigger an episode:
- Emotional stress.
- Infections, especially sinusitis.
- Certain foods (eg, chocolate, cheese, monosodium glutamate).
- Having long periods of time without food.
- Hot weather.
- Menstrual periods.
- Excess exercise.
- Sleep deprivation.
- Following an episode the patient is symptom-free for several weeks or months.
For a diagnosis to be made in children the following criteria need to be met:
- At least five episodes, or a minimum of three over a six-month period.
- Episodic attacks of intense nausea and vomiting lasting one hour to ten days, occurring at least one week apart.
- Stereotypical pattern and symptoms in the individual patient.
- Vomiting during episodes occurring at least four times an hour for at least one hour.
- A return to baseline health during episodes.
- Symptoms cannot be attributed to another disorder.
For a diagnosis to be made in adults the following criteria need to be met:
- Stereotypical episodes of vomiting regarding onset (acute) and duration (less than one week).
- A minimum of three discrete episodes in the preceding year.
- Absence of nausea and vomiting between episodes.
- No metabolic, gastrointestinal, or central nervous system structural or biochemical disorders.
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease.
- Gastritis, duodenitis.
- Crohn's disease.
- Ulcerative colitis.
- Acute intermittent porphyria.
- Addison's disease.
- Diabetes mellitus with ketoacidosis.
- The diagnosis is usually made clinically.
- CVS should be considered in any child who has repeated episodes of vomiting with periods of wellness between episodes.
- Investigations may be undertaken but these are usually to exclude any underlying conditions. These may include FBC, renal function, LFTs, gastroscopy and abdominal ultrasound.
- A pregnancy test may be considered for some older girls and women.
The following treatment strategies are used:
- Avoidance of triggers - eg, certain foods, stress, sleep deprivation, avoiding dehydration.
- Prophylactic and abortive therapy:
- Preventative medications are usually considered for those patients with more than one episode a month.
- Prophylactic treatments include amitriptyline, propranolol and topiramate.
- Medications used for aborting acute episodes include ondansetron, prochlorperazine and triptans.
- The addition of erythromycin to standard propranolol treatment has been shown to improve the response to treatment in children.
- Supportive care during acute episodes - eg, intravenous fluids, analgesia.
- Family support.
NB: assessment and treatment of anxiety in children and adolescents with CVS may have a positive impact on health-related quality of life.
- Full recovery is usual in the majority of cases.
- Dehydration can occur in more severe or prolonged cases.
- Oesophagitis or a Mallory-Weiss tear can occur due to the excessive vomiting.
- Tooth decay can occur in some cases.
- Most cases resolve in late childhood or early adolescence.
- Around half of children with this condition develop migraines when they are older.
- Parents and children with CVS have lower health-related quality of life compared to those children with irritable bowel syndrome.
Prevention of further episodes
This is not always possible. However, the following should be recommended to patients:
- They should have adequate sleep and avoid exhaustion.
- Any stress or anxiety should be addressed and managed.
- Foods that trigger episodes should be avoided.
- Medications used for migraine prophylaxis can be beneficial for some cases.
Further reading & references
- Kaul A, Kaul KK; Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome: A Functional Disorder. Pediatr Gastroenterol Hepatol Nutr. 2015 Dec;18(4):224-9. doi: 10.5223/pghn.2015.18.4.224. Epub 2015 Dec 23.
- Tepper SJ; Cyclic vomiting syndrome, inborn errors of metabolism, migraine variants, episodic syndromes that may be associated with migraine, and other unusual pediatric headache syndromes. Headache. 2016 Jan;56(1):205. doi: 10.1111/head.12751. Epub 2015 Dec 21.
- Gelfand AA; Migraine and childhood periodic syndromes in children and adolescents. Curr Opin Neurol. 2013 Jun;26(3):262-8. doi: 10.1097/WCO.0b013e32836085c7.
- Li BU, Lefevre F, Chelimsky GG, et al; North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition consensus statement on the diagnosis and management of cyclic vomiting syndrome. J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr. 2008 Sep;47(3):379-93. doi: 10.1097/MPG.0b013e318173ed39.
- Hejazi RA, McCallum RW; Cyclic vomiting syndrome: treatment options. Exp Brain Res. 2014 Aug;232(8):2549-52. doi: 10.1007/s00221-014-3989-7. Epub 2014 May 28.
- Haghighat M, Dehghani SM, Shahramian I, et al; Combination of erythromycin and propranolol for treatment of childhood cyclic vomiting syndrome: a novel regimen. Gastroenterol Hepatol Bed Bench. 2015 Fall;8(4):270-7.
- Tarbell SE, Li BU; Anxiety Measures Predict Health-Related Quality of Life in Children and Adolescents with Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome. J Pediatr. 2015 Sep;167(3):633-8.e1. doi: 10.1016/j.jpeds.2015.05.032. Epub 2015 Jun 18.
- Hikita T, Kodama H, Ogita K, et al; Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome in Infants and Children: A Clinical Follow-Up Study. Pediatr Neurol. 2016 Jan 7. pii: S0887-8994(15)30346-5. doi: 10.1016/j.pediatrneurol.2016.01.001.
- Tarbell SE, Li BU; Health-related quality of life in children and adolescents with cyclic vomiting syndrome: a comparison with published data on youth with irritable bowel syndrome and organic gastrointestinal disorders. J Pediatr. 2013 Aug;163(2):493-7. doi: 10.1016/j.jpeds.2013.01.025. Epub 2013 Feb 26.
Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.
Dr Louise Newson
Dr Louise Newson
Dr Hayley Willacy