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Ultimate guide to kid vomit: Causes and treatment

From what causes kids to vomit to how to make clean-up a little less awful, here is everything you need to know about dealing with puke.

By Today's Parent
Ultimate guide to kid vomit: Causes and treatment

Photo: iStockPhoto

Barf. Puke. Vomit. Call it what you will, but rest assured that as a parent, you’ll encounter kid vomit—and it won’t be fun. Even the most seasoned, BTDT parents can find themselves fully frazzled when their kid starts throwing up.

But the fact is, kid vomit happens. And when it does, you may have some questions. Here are the answers:

What can cause a child to vomit?

Here are some of the most common reasons kids throw up:

  • Viral gastroenteritis, also known as “stomach flu,” is the most common culprit. This infection can last anywhere from a couple of days to more than a week.
  • COVID-19. Some variants more than others, but COVID has been known to cause vomiting, especially in children.
  • Motion sickness is a common reason for vomiting. About 50 percent of kids sometimes feel sick to their stomachs while moving in cars or planes, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Food poisoning. The symptoms mimic viral gastroenteritis, and begin anywhere from a few hours to a few days after eating contaminated food.
  • Some kids are just a bit barfy by nature. They throw up when they cough, cry or get too excited, or if they see something that turns their stomach, if they eat or drink too much, or run around after eating, and so on.
  • Some long-term illnesses or digestive issues, such as lactose intolerance or celiac disease, can cause chronic vomiting, off and on for months at a time.
  • Vomiting can be caused by other kinds of infections, some of which can be quite serious. If your child is vomiting repeatedly and has other symptoms such as fever, lethargy or pain, consult with your doctor.
Five years old small child in the backseat of a car sitting in children safety car seat covers his mouth with his hand - ozgurcankaya/ Getty Images

Do I have to worry about my kid getting dehydrated if they've been vomiting?

Yep, dehydration is the top concern when a kid is vomiting. They'll likely feel pretty thirsty afterwards (along with wanting that yucky taste out of her mouth). But that doesn’t mean you should give them a big glass of water, because it’s likely to come right back up.

Small boy drinking water Thanasis Zovoilis/ Getty Images

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What should I give my kid to drink after they've thrown up?

Try small but frequent sips of water or very watered-down juice.

You could also offer an oral rehydration solution, like Pedialyte, which contains just the right balance of sugar and salts to maximize fluid absorption. If you go this route, alternate it with water for the first six to 12 hours. You may need to spoon the fluid in every few minutes. Or try a Pedialyte freezer pop.

What about ginger ale? Although many swear it relieves nausea and some studies back that up, too much of the sugary pop can also exacerbate stomach problems. Warm ginger tea, sweetened with a bit of honey, is a better choice.

If your baby is breastfeeding, keep breastfeeding! Do so frequently, following your baby’s lead. This will help ensure that lost fluid is replaced.

Most importantly, keep a close eye on your kid for signs of dehydration. These include:

  • Peeing less frequently than usual
  • Dry mouth
  • No tears when crying
  • Lethargy and/or irritability
  • Deep, rapid breathing

See your doctor if some or all of these signs are present.

Boy drinking water mrs/ Getty Images

Can kids eat after they throw up?

As gross as this sounds to adults, it’s pretty common for a kid to vomit the contents of their stomach and ask for a snack five minutes later. Should you let them?

Advice on this one goes both ways. Some doctors recommend waiting as many as eight hours (!!!) before offering food if your child is vomiting from gastroenteritis. Other doctors say you can go ahead and offer small amounts of food if your kid says they're hungry right after vomiting.

Little girl having breakfast with her dad at home, eating marmalade miodrag ignjatovic/ Getty Images

What should my child eat after vomiting?

Here, again, experts have different views. Many recommend sticking to the “BRAT” diet: bananas, rice, applesauce and toast. But newer research shows that sick kids can actually eat the same foods they always do, without repercussions. It probably makes sense to avoid fried, greasy foods, as well as dairy and excessive sugar. Ask your doctor for advice.

Happy little child girl with yellow banana like smile on orange background. Preschool girl with glasses smiling. Healthy fruits for children. romrodinka/ Getty Images

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My kid is scared of throwing up. What can I do?

Try not to freak out; she’s taking her cues from you. Soothe your child, rub their back, acknowledge their feelings and tell them that it’s okay and that it will be over soon. If your kid has long hair, tie it back. Puke hair is terrible for everyone involved.

Child sitting at the table in the kitchen with stomach pain. Hands on belly. Little girl suffering Suzi Media Production/ Getty Images

When can kids go back to school after they throw up?

These days, any incidence of vomiting could potentially be COVID-19. Follow your school's guidance on COVID-19 protocols as they pertain to vomiting. Test your child for COVID, if possible.

Always keep a child home from school if you suspect dehydration, or if diarrhea and vomiting are accompanied by pain or a fever of 38.5°C or higher. Send them back when the symptoms subside and they can tolerate liquids and solid food without being ill.

Child sitting on sofa and suffering from stomach ache at home room. Young adult mother hand touching daughter painful belly and trying calm down. FotoDuets/ Getty Images

Can I give my child Gravol to stop the vomiting?

The College of Family Physicians of Canada says that Gravol (Dimenhydrinate) appears to be safe for kids two years and older. If your child is younger, ask your doctor for advice.

Gravol is most effective for vomiting caused by motion sickness. Doctors generally do not recommend using it for gastroenteritis (“stomach flu”), since the virus will resolve on its own, and it’s more important to focus on staying hydrated.

Closeup of unrecognizable doctor giving vitamins to curly little boy during appointment SeventyFour/ Getty Images

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How do I clean up vomit?

Cleaning up kid vomit is among the most awful parenting jobs out there. Here are a few tips to make it just the tiniest bit better.

  • Towels are your friend. Keep some around at all times when your kid is sick. It’s much easier to throw a towel in the washing machine (dumping the chunks into the toilet first—sorry!) than it is to scoop and wipe vomit off the floor, or worse, the carpet (ugh! THE WORST).
  • Keep spare sheets and a blanket in each child’s room—perhaps in the top drawer of his dresser, or stashed away in his closet. This prevents hunting through the linen closet in the dark trying to find a sheet that fits. Or, double up on bedsheets so in the middle of the night, you can just strip a layer off. (Place a waterproof sheet or mattress cover in between the sheets.)
  • Keep a waterproof mattress cover on your kid’s bed at all times to avoid the puke stinking up and staining the mattress.
  • In the middle of the night, gather up the mattress cover, sheets and blankets, and put them somewhere where the smell won’t bother anyone until the next day. (Outside or in a basement bathroom could be options.) Deal with it in the morning.
  • If you have a partner, one of you should take care of your kid (wiping him down or giving him a quick shower) while the other one deals with the mess. Divide and conquer!
  • The toilet can seem really far away to a little kid who needs to throw up. Keep a bucket or garbage bin close to the bed and explain what it’s for. Put glow sticks under the plastic bag to help kids see where to aim.
Mother cleans the baby mmpile/ Getty Images

Is vomiting contagious?

It definitely canbe, depending on the cause of the vomiting. Viral gastroenteritis is very contagious, and if you’re taking care of your child or cleaning up, you’re definitely at risk. Wash your hands obsessively, and your kid's, too. Clean anything that has vomit on it with very hot water. Some parents clean up vomit wearing rubber gloves, and that’s not a bad idea.

Nightmare trip with three kids. After few quick turn all three kids getting severe car sickness attack. Imgorthand/ Getty Images
This article was originally published on May 30, 2022

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