Why Do Kids Vomit So Much? (And When You Should Be Worried)
The queasy truth about why kids throw up more than adults.
Being neurotic about puke and having children is like having acrophobia and giving birth to the Empire State Building. You are, to put it lightly, screwed. Kids puke a lot and very much in the style of Old Faithful. When headlines read, “Flu Symptoms Highly Contagious” what they really mean is: “Norovirus symptoms are ‘explosive’ diarrhea and ‘projectile’ vomiting, which can send infectious particles flying yards away.” Woof.
So why do children seem to throw up more than us adults, and what in God’s name can be done to prevent your family’s turn on the barf-o-go-round?
“Anything that makes a child sick can make them vomit,” pediatric gastroenterologist Dr. Katja Kovacic recently shared with NPR. “There are numerous, numerous causes.” Though gastroenteritis, more commonly known as the stomach flu, is the leading cause of vomiting in children, the cause can also be as innocuous as a stubbed toe.
The Puking Mechanism
Anatomically speaking, kids and adults experience vomiting the same. When bodies—both big and small—respond to stressors, the nerve fibers send signals to the body to unload the contents of the stomach. We can probably thank our hunter-gatherer ancestors for this evolutionary mechanism devoted to poison control.
Once the brain is on board in a state of fight or flight, your blood supply is redirected to your internal organs and digestion grinds to a halt. The body subsequently pulls off a domino effect of synchronized physical responses that would be beautiful if it weren’t so disgusting: the larynx and upper palate lift, the diaphragm stomps down, creating negative pressure that flings open the esophagus, and behold! Breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
“[You] literally squeeze your stomach between your abs and diaphragm,” Bill Yates, a neurologist at the University of Pittsburgh told Motherboard. Curiously, most animals haven’t evolved to consume enough food in one sitting such that they could be fatally poisoned. Obviously, that cat puke on the carpet names dogs and cats the exception, not the rule.
The area postrema, our brain’s version of poison control, works in conjunction with the vagus nerve when an object goes far enough down the throat to elicit the gag reflex. Even the stomach’s personal nervous system reacts to overconsumption or the obvious stomach virus. And because the body has trouble differentiating between physical and emotional stressors, emotions such as anxiety, grief or revulsion can trigger vomiting through a slightly confused central nervous system.
In other words, you’re being protected by puke.
Children Still Throw Up More Than Adults
You might assume that sensitive and immature immune systems leave kids more susceptible to stomach bugs and other vomit-inducing illnesses (have you seen a congested child dry heave?), and you would be correct. But there’s so much more. Little bodies tend to eat meals too quickly and have the potential to overfill small stomachs. They ingest the indigestible and send their bodies into extreme stress with every tantrum and meltdown. It’s no wonder that Stanley Steamer is on speed dial.
That’s not to say that recurrent vomiting can signal something more serious, like cyclic vomiting syndrome. Doctors describe the condition as repeated episodes of vomiting that last hours or days, and parents shouldn’t chalk up persistent vomiting as a childhood rite of passage. As always, ask your pediatrician if your instincts guide you to further questions or concerns.
Otherwise, hydrate your child, particularly with beverages that contain electrolytes, like Pedialyte or sports drinks without the high sugar content. Reintroducing food slowly and in small portions with bland foods helps to resume digestion in an inflamed stomach and digestive tract.
How to Maintain a Vomit-Free Zone
Recent studies suggest that noroviruses don’t die, living on surfaces for up to 42 days, and requiring only about 20 viral particles to make a person sick. Yet one tablespoon of vomit contains a staggering 15 million viruses, and the same amount of fecal matter holds up to 75 billion little masterminds. It’s no wonder it’s one of the most highly evolved methods of contagion known to planet Earth.
Now is the time to instill within your kids a holy passion for handwashing. Quarantine the sick and isolate the surfaces they touch. And clean with bleach up to a 25-foot radius of the hazmat zone. Remember the “infectious particles flying yards away”?
Stick to science and do what you can, but if you must purchase tickets to the annual Barfmania, you’ll survive. Hypnotize yourself into a “hazmat robot” and heroically mop, wrap, wash, and tend to whatever needs tending to. Somehow remember your incredible luck that the current misery notwithstanding, you are blessed with kids who get sick and then get better again.