What to Do When Your Child is Throwing Up
Your normally happy and playful 2-year-old has not been himself all day. He’s been clingy, fussy, and has refused to eat his favorite foods. Then out of nowhere, he starts throwing up what you think was breakfast. It doesn’t stop there. For the next three hours, he throws up every 10 minutes. This is replaced by dry-heaving until he finally falls asleep, exhausted. You are naturally worried. Here are some guidelines that will get you through the night when dealing with unexplained vomiting in children.
NOTE: Vomiting in an infant 2 months or younger is very different than toddlers or children.
How to Determine the Cause of Vomiting
The top causes of vomiting in children are very difficult to distinguish at the onset because they all start out the same – profuse vomiting every 5 to 30 minutes for the first 1 to 12 hours. Are they running a temperature, or is your child vomiting without fever? Understanding the various symptoms will help you determine the cause and what to do.
Top 6 Causes of Vomiting in Children
1. Stomach flu
This is by far the most common cause. The stomach flu is a virus that causes sudden onset of vomiting, high fever, and stomach pain. Diarrhea usually begins during the first or second day. The length of vomiting varies from the “12-hour flu” to the dreaded “72-hour flu.” There is no blood or stool test to diagnose this.
2. Food poisoning
Relax, this doesn’t really mean “poison,” it simply means that this is caused by bad bacteria that is present in spoiled food. The onset of food poisoning usually begins 2 to 12 hours after eating the food and involves throwing up with no fever. Common food sources that cause food poisoning are spoiled mayonnaise, chicken, fish, beef, or salad dressing. Some clues that it may be food poisoning are:
- Often there is vomiting without fever
- Usually occurs within a few hours after eating an identifiable source of bad food such as a questionable restaurant or a picnic.
- Vomiting usually does not last more than 12 hours.
Therefore, if there is a high fever, you can’t think of any bad food your child ate, and the vomiting lasts beyond 12 hours, it probably is not food poisoning. Diarrhea may or may not develop.
3. Other intestinal viruses or bacterial illnesses
There are a variety of other viral and bacterial intestinal illnesses besides the flu that can cause vomiting in children; Most are not serious. Some examples include Rotavirus, Salmonella, and E-Coli. The initial vomiting pattern, stomach pain, and fever of these illnesses are the same as the stomach flu and therefore difficult to distinguish from the flu. However, in the initial period of vomiting, it is not really necessary to determine which of all these illnesses is causing it. Instead, you simply need to know how to handle your child vomiting.
4. Intestinal obstruction
Now DON’T PANIC. This is by far the least common cause, but it is also the most serious and is considered a medical emergency. This occurs when the intestines become twisted and will demand immediate medical attention. The key symptom here is actually SEVERE abdominal pain (See: How to Identify Abdominal Pain). If there is only moderate or no pain, it’s probably not an obstruction. Here are the symptoms:
- Sudden onset of abdominal pain
- Child vomiting bile (dark-green in color, not just light-green mucus)
- Usually, but not always, projectile vomiting
- Agonizing pain that may be constant, but may also come and go
- No bowel movements
- Pale and sweaty skin
- Child is overall worsening rather than staying the same or improving
5. Severe cough and cold
Children can often vomit after a big coughing fit. This isn’t really considered a vomiting problem but rather a coughing problem. Read more on croup symptoms for more information.
6. Bladder infection
If your child has had a high fever for several days with occasional vomiting, and the urine burns or smells foul, consider this cause. Bladder infections are typically treated by a doctor with antibiotics and your child should start to feel better within a day or two.
What to Do When A Child is Vomiting
The first thing to remember is DON’T PANIC. It is usually not dangerous with a child vomiting at night, and this rarely results in significant dehydration. Keep in mind it usually takes at least 12 hours of severe vomiting to make a child significantly dehydrated. These guidelines should help you get your child through the vomiting stage of his illness:
First stage – severe vomiting every 5 – 30 minutes
- During this time, do not attempt to give your child any food or liquids at all because they will just come right back up. This is called total bowel rest. Let the worst of the vomiting pass.
- If your child asks to nurse or drink something, then just offer small sips at a time, and don’t expect him to keep it down.
Second stage – vomiting has started to slow down to every one or two hours
- Go ahead and offer your child small sips of liquids every 5 or 10 minutes.
- Here are the three best liquids to try: Oral electrolyte solution such as Pedialyte has the best balance of salt, sugar, and other electrolytes, Frozen popsicles, or slushies made from an electrolyte solution, Breastmilk is excellent for the nursing child.
- A few other suggestions until you can get an electrolyte solution: White grape juice or slushy slightly diluted with water. You can also try Gatorade or a similar drink.
- Again, these are not as ideal and should be replaced with Pedialyte when possible.
- Liquids NOT to give – apple, pear, and cherry juice may have too much sugar. This can worsen diarrhea and dehydration.
Third stage – vomiting is now only 2 – 4 times a day or stopped altogether
- It is now okay to try some foods.
- Bland foods such as crackers, toast, soup broth, etc.
- Continue breastfeeding.
- Restart formula if formula feeding. You can mix half formula and half Pedialyte at first. This may be more easily tolerated.
- Continue liquids as described above.
- Don’t be alarmed if your child throws up this food. It may be too soon to start feeding again. Just take a step back to the second stage until the vomiting calms down again.
- Rectal Acetaminophen – if your child has a fever but can’t keep down any medicine, we suggest acetaminophen suppositories.
- Medicine for vomiting child – There are anti-nausea medication suppositories that can be prescribed by your doctor for kids two and older that can suppress the vomiting to get your child through the worst of it. These medications should only be used when absolutely needed. A commonly used brand is Phenergan.
When Not to Worry
- Persistent vomiting – if the vomiting seems like it’s going on forever, you need to assess your child for dehydration. If he is only mildly or maybe moderately dehydrated, this generally can wait until morning to contact your doctor.
- Dehydration – keep in mind most kids will become mildly dehydrated during a vomiting illness. Mild dehydration is not serious and often does not warrant an urgent call to your doctor.
- Vomiting comes back – It is common for kids to get better for a day or two, and then begin throwing up again. This is generally okay. Assess which stage he seems to be in and treat it accordingly.
- Fever – it is normal to have even high fevers for several days. If your child is throwing up without a fever, it may be a food poisoning or a coughing problem.
- Blood in vomit – you may see bloody streaks in your child’s vomit. Tiny tears in the throat cause this from the pressure of throwing up. It is generally not dangerous and should pass.
When to Worry
Here are some guidelines on when to call your doctor or bring your children to the ER:
- Prolonged vomiting – depending on how old your child is, you should call your doctor if stage one vomiting continues. This includes vomiting in infants (up to 12 months old) for more than 8 hours, toddler vomiting (1 through 3 years old) for more than 12 hours, and vomiting in children (4 years and older) for more than 16 hours.
- Large amount of blood in vomit – if the tears in the throat become too large from severe, high-pressure vomiting, they can bleed significantly. If you think this is really happening, go to an emergency room promptly. This is very rare though, as the tears generally stay very tiny and only bleed slightly.
- Meningitis – a brief word here. Although vomiting is not the main sign of meningitis, it is one of them. If your child has severe headache, stiffness, or pain in the back of the neck, high fever, and vomiting, call your doctor right away.
- Kidney infection – again, vomiting isn’t the main symptom for this, but if your child has high fevers, vomiting, and is complaining of burning with urination or the urine smells foul, you should call your doctor.
Dr. Sears, or Dr. Bill as his “little patients” call him, has been advising busy parents on how to raise healthier families for over 40 years. He received his medical training at Harvard Medical School’s Children’s Hospital in Boston and The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, the world’s largest children’s hospital, where he was associate ward chief of the newborn intensive care unit before serving as the chief of pediatrics at Toronto Western Hospital, a teaching hospital of the University of Toronto. He has served as a professor of pediatrics at the University of Toronto, University of South Carolina, University of Southern California School of Medicine, and University of California: Irvine. As a father of 8 children, he coached Little League sports for 20 years, and together with his wife Martha has written more than 40 best-selling books and countless articles on nutrition, parenting, and healthy aging. He serves as a health consultant for magazines, TV, radio and other media, and his AskDrSears.com website is one of the most popular health and parenting sites. Dr. Sears has appeared on over 100 television programs, including 20/20, Good Morning America, Oprah, Today, The View, and Dr. Phil, and was featured on the cover of TIME Magazine in May 2012. He is noted for his science-made-simple-and-fun approach to family health.