Stoner syndrome? People 'scromiting' from illness linked to heavy cannabis use, Calif. doctors say

Photo of Michelle Robertson

A mysterious illness induced by excessive marijuana use can cause bouts of uncontrolled vomiting and debilitating nausea, doctors say.

Doctors have only recently begun to recognize the prevalence of Cannabinoid Hyperemesis Syndrome (CHS), a condition characterized by chronic cannabis use, cyclic episodes of nausea and vomiting, and the compulsion to take hot baths or showers. The syndrome typically affects just a small portion of the population – heavy, long-term marijuana users.

CHS has become so common in the emergency room of Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego, some doctors refer to CHS as "scromiting," an amalgam of "vomiting" and "screaming."

"In my work, in the emergency room, I see at least one patient a day with the Cannabinoid Hyperemesis Syndrome," Dr. Roneet Lev, the director of operations at Scripps Mercy Hospital, told NBC.

Dr. Linda Nguyen, a gastroenterologist at Stanford Health Care, says she encounters about three to four patients a month with CHS. A more apt description of the syndrome, in her opinion, is "cromiting."

"I tend to see more crying and vomiting, less so screaming," Nguyen said.

Click through the slideshow to see some of California's history around legalizing cannabis.
Click through the slideshow to see some of California's history around legalizing cannabis.

In the past several years, Nguyen has noticed an increase in patients afflicted with CHS. It's hard to quantify such observations, because CHS can be difficult to diagnose and research around the syndrome is limited. A major epidemiological study has yet to be conducted.

"What percentage of marijuana users have CHS? We don't know, because we don't know the percentage of the population that uses marijuana," Nguyen said.

Nguyen typically treats more men than women with CHS, although "all types of people" can suffer from the syndrome, including high-functioning adults whose mental ability is not substantially affected by heavy marijuana use.

The only way to cure CHS, Nguyen said, is to "get off the marijuana."

The syndrome was first described by Australian researchers in 2004. Subsequent research has found that CHS coincides with increasing rates of stateside cannabis abuse.

"While the overall prevalence of marijuana use has remained stable in the United States at 4%, the prevalence of cannabis use disorders (i.e. cannabis dependence, cannabis abuse) has continued to rise," a 2011 paper by Temple University Hospital researchers found.

The same paper noted that the average duration of cannabis use prior to an onset of symptoms was 16 years. The earliest symptoms had developed was after three years of heavy marijuana use.

As for the excessive bathing, Temple researchers believe that it is a "learned behavior" that starts as an alleviating measure and "rapidly becomes a compulsive behavior."

It is not yet clear what causes CHS, though two theories prevail, according to Nguyen. Either marijuana slows the emptying of the stomach and, therefore, causes nausea and vomiting; or, more likely, cannabis accumulates in the brain and affects its thermoregulatory centers.

Common treatments for CHS include the administering of intravenous fluids, anti-nausea drugs and capsaicin cream.

Michelle Robertson is an SFGATE staff writer. Email her at or find her on Twitter at @mrobertsonsf.