If you vomit a brown liquid – truly brown – is this something you should necessarily be alarmed about, since “normal” vomit is supposed to be yellowish-tan?
If you do a search on “brown vomit,” the search results will take you to sites describing serious illnesses including cancer that can cause brown vomitus.
This is because the brown is old blood. Vomiting up blood is never a benign condition, but it’s not always cancer, either.
However, can a person ever upchuck a brown liquid without any disease whatsoever?
“Our vomit can be a lot of different colors, often reflective of what has most recently been eaten,” says G. Shelton McMullan, MD, board certified gastroenterologist with Capital Digestive Care in MD.
But vomiting doesn’t just happen for no reason, either.
“The color of one’s vomit is not typically concerning unless the vomit appears bloody, as in bright red, maroon or dark brown with what is described as a coffee–ground appearance,” says Dr. McMullan.
Let’s leave the appearance of coffee grounds out of the equation for a moment. What if the vomitus is brown BUT there’s no sign of any substance that looks like coffee grounds?
If you’ve upchucked enough times throughout your life (food poisoning, overeating, premenstrual syndrome, pregnancy, acute emotional distress), you’ll know that usually, what comes up is the color of thousand island salad dressing – or what might be described as some shade of dull yellow, maybe yellow-tan or yellow-beige.
But what about a brown hue that resembles milk chocolate – but you haven’t eaten any chocolate?
“Often, bile from one’s gallbladder will travel up into the stomach and mix with stomach contents, leading to the vomiting of brownish-yellow material,” says Dr. McMullan.
When I suddenly had to vomit in the middle of the night a good time ago, it was 100% brown, resembling milk chocolate.
This was preceded by cramps and a bowel movement several minutes prior. After getting back into bed, I soon was overcome with nausea and instinctively knew that something was about to come up.
I raced to the bathroom and upchucked – several rounds worth, and saw in the dim light that the color was dark.
After it was all out of me, I flipped on the light and noted the brown color. I searched for any signs of “coffee grounds” and found none, thank God. I also felt fine, as though nothing unusual had even happened.
But I was troubled that the vomitus was not the color I remembered it always being whenever I hurled: the color of thousand island dressing.
Whatever was going on was an acute process, as I had felt perfect the prior day and evening, and went to bed peacefully, only to be awakened by cramping and the urge to have a BM.
There was no nausea at that point, just a nocturnal need to poop. Of course, once back in bed, I suddenly felt sick.
The prior evening I had overeaten.
Bile is green when it’s produced in the gallbladder. It can still be green when it gets into the stomach.
I surmised that some green bile in my stomach had mixed with something red that I had eaten – since green + red = brown.
I had eaten a calzone (lots of reddish-orange tomato paste) that had been sitting under a heat lamp in a cafeteria for who knows for how long.
The prolonged presence under a heat lamp can ignite the growth of bacteria, which can then cause a bad reaction several hours later. The three big blueberry muffins I’d also had didn’t help, I’m sure.
Go ahead, try it: Mix equal parts reddish-orange paint (or even pure red) with green, and the result will be brown.
Following that incident of a good while ago, I continued feeling normal, as though nothing had happened. No recurrence, no new symptoms. This was a sudden, acute, short-lived event: a bad reaction to that calzone.
Another Cause of Brown Vomit that Isn’t Cancer
“Non-specific inflammation of the stomach lining (gastritis) can sometimes cause some minor, intermittent bleeding,” says Dr. McMullan.
“This blood can darken while sitting in the stomach and, if vomited up for some reason, can appear as dark brown and similar in appearance to coffee grounds.”
If blood in vomit is fresh or from the lower portion of the digestive tract, it will be red, even bright red. This can be caused by colon cancer but also by an ulcer.
If you upchuck a brown liquid, take note of what you ate the day before. Take stronger note if there are other symptoms present, or new symptoms soon after that won’t go away.
Though an ulcer is highly preferable to cancer, it’s still a potentially serious problem that needs prompt medical treatment.
Dr. McMullan has published numerous medical abstracts and presented posters related to the management and treatment of inflammatory bowel disease and other gastroenterological conditions.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer.