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What is nausea and vomiting?

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About nausea and vomiting

Nausea is a feeling of queasiness in the stomach and the sensation that you might vomit. It is sometimes, but not always, accompanied by actual vomiting. Vomiting is when your body forcibly ejects the contents of your stomach through your mouth.

Many different conditions can cause nausea and vomiting in children, including gastroenteritis (what is commonly known as “the stomach flu”), food poisoning, gastroesophageal reflux disease, autonomic disorders or abdominal migraines. Children who have severe, recurrent vomiting episodes that follow a stereotypical pattern might have a condition known as cyclic vomiting syndrome.

What causes nausea and vomiting?

If the nausea and vomiting are over in a day or two, the cause is likely food poisoning or a virus that irritates the gastrointestinal tract. In other cases, chronic nausea and vomiting can indicate another GI disorder. Sometimes the problem resides in the brain, which controls the body’s vomiting impulse. Stress, autonomic dysfunction and mitochondrial (energy) dysfunction can also cause nausea and vomiting.

How common are nausea and vomiting?

Almost all children experience nausea and vomiting at some point. More severe, chronic vomiting is less common. Cyclic vomiting syndrome affects an estimated 2 percent of school-aged children.

What are the symptoms of nausea and vomiting?

A queasy stomach and inability to keep down food are the most common symptoms, but other symptoms could include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Abdominal pain
  • Dizziness
  • Headache

Repeated vomiting can lead to serious dehydration. Signs of dehydration include:

  • Thirst
  • Exhaustion
  • Decreased urination
  • Paleness
  • Listlessness

If your child is showing symptoms of dehydration, see a health care provider immediately.

Who is at risk of developing this condition?

Nausea and vomiting can affect children at any age.

Why are nausea and vomiting a concern?

Nausea and vomiting are extremely unpleasant and can cause a child to miss school. Repeated vomiting can cause severe dehydration that can be life-threatening and lead to hospitalization. Chronic nausea and vomiting can affect a child’s eating, possibly leading to failure to thrive, poor weight gain and weight loss.

How are nausea and vomiting diagnosed/evaluated?

If your child’s symptoms resolve in a few days, no further evaluation is needed. But if your child frequently experiences nausea and vomiting, the doctor might order tests to rule out a more serious condition. Tests could include an upper GI series, an abdominal ultrasound, magnetic resonance imaging, endoscopy, blood tests and autonomic testing.

What is the treatment for nausea and vomiting?

It depends on the cause of your child’s symptoms. If it's just a short-lived virus, the best course is to simply wait it out and have your child consume only small quantities of bland food until his or her stomach settles down. Your child should temporarily avoid dairy products as those can aggravate an upset stomach. To counter the dehydrating affects of vomiting, encourage your child to drink small amounts of clear liquids frequently. If your child becomes severely dehydrated, the doctor may recommend IV hydration.

If your child experiences reoccurring nausea or vomiting, treatment could include preventative measures. The doctor may recommend anti-migraine and anti-vomiting medications if abdominal migraines and/or cyclic vomiting syndrome are suspected. The doctor may suggest cognitive behavior therapy if he or she thinks that stress or anxiety is a contributing factor. Gastric pacing can also help alleviate chronic nausea in some patients.

What happens after treatment?

In most cases of viral-induced nausea and vomiting, your child will feel better after a day or two. Sometimes a gastrointestinal virus can lead to temporary lactose intolerance that lasts a few days to a few weeks. If there’s another condition causing your child’s nausea or vomiting, it may take some trial and error before we find the treatment plan that works best for your child.

When should you contact a physician?

See a doctor immediately if you suspect that your child is seriously dehydrated. If your child often complains of nausea or vomiting, take note of any patterns and triggers and talk to your pediatrician.

What is the long-term outlook for nausea and vomiting?

The outlook depends on the underlying cause of your child’s symptoms. Occasional nausea and vomiting are not harmful, but frequent nausea and vomiting can affect a child’s eating and growth. Most children with cyclic vomiting syndrome outgrow it around puberty, though the majority are likely to develop migraine headaches later in life.

How do I live with nausea and vomiting?

If your child often experiences these symptoms, try to track and understand the triggers, such as illness, stress/excitement, fatigue or certain foods. If there’s an underlying condition causing your child’s nausea and vomiting, follow your doctor’s treatment recommendations for the best results.

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