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Vomiting: Why We Do It

In general, we vomit so we can eliminate potentially toxic stuff from our body, whether that’s bad food or bad germs. To narrow things down to the specific reason you or your kids are vomiting you’ll need to decipher symptoms.

For example, is there fever, cough, or diarrhea along with the vomiting? “Then it might be stomach virus,” says Scott Cohen, MD, FAAP, an attending physician at Cedars Sinai Medical Center and a pediatrician.

When there aren’t helpful symptoms as a guide “you start looking into things like timing,” Cohen tells WebMD. Does the vomiting happen after you eat? It could be reflux, maybe a peptic ulcer. Did you experience nausea or vomiting eight or more hours after a meal? It might be food poisoning.

For babies less than a year old, reflux is the most common cause of vomiting says Leslie Young, MD, author of The Everything Parent's Guide To Childhood Illnesses. A “benign condition…that typically improves with time,” reflux usually goes away for most infants by about eight months.

Preventing Vomiting and Nausea

Although there’s nothing much you can do for many of the reasons behind vomiting, you can tackle the chief culprit: gastroenteritis, which causes inflammation in the stomach, and small and large intestines.

The viruses that cause some gastroenteritis are spread through close contact with infected people, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The viruses make their way easily from person to person and can be passed around through shared food, water, and eating utensils.

To prevent viral gastroenteritis and the vomiting that often goes with it, the CDC suggests:

  • Wash your hands often, including after you use the bathroom or change diapers.
  • Use alcohol-based hand rubs when soap and water aren’t available.
  • Disinfect contaminated surfaces with bleach-based cleaners.
  • Be sure food is stored, cooked, prepared, and served hygienically.

Most of these precautions offer another benefit: They can help you and your kids avoid seasonal influenza and swine flu.

Home Care for Vomiting, Nausea, and Stomach Upsets

Intestinal blockages, appendicitis, ulcers -- some dramatic problems can be behind vomiting, nausea, or stomach upsets. So it’s important to talk with your doctor about nausea and vomiting, says Young.

Still there are home-care tips that can help before -- and after -- you reach your doctor:

  • The most important thing is hydration, says Cohen, author of Eat, Sleep, Poop: A Complete Common Sense Guide to Your Baby’s First Year. “After vomiting, you want to wait 30 to 60 minutes before you put anything in the stomach.” After the tummy has had a little time to settle, offer a teaspoon of liquids. If that stays down, offer another teaspoon a few minutes later. “Think small amounts frequently instead of large amounts all at once,” Cohen suggests.
  • Hold off on solid foods until it’s been six hours since the last vomiting episode. Then try bland, easily digested foods like crackers, toast, or gelatin. Once those are tolerated, move slowly to cereals, rice, and then start salty or high-protein, high-carbohydrate foods, but avoid spicy or fatty foods. The experts warn that two common mistakes parents make when caring for a child who has been vomiting is giving solids or liquids too soon, and letting the child have as much as the child wants. Go slow.
  • Avoid strong odors like perfume, smoke, and cooking smells. Stuffy rooms, flickering lights, and driving can also trigger additional bouts of nausea and vomiting.
  • Antihistamines can help prevent vomiting and nausea due to motion sickness, and antiemetic medicines may help relieve the nausea and vomiting sometimes caused by bacteria or stomach irritation. Cohen suggests avoiding antiemetics for treating a child’s vomiting due to viral gastroenteritis, however. “Usually kids don't like the taste,” he says. It’s important to keep them hydrated.
  • Finally, if you’re dealing with tummy pain or upset, “acetaminophen (Tylenol) typically does not work,” Young tells WebMD. “And ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) can sometimes make stomach pain worse if the pain is caused by an ulcer.”