Cough until you puke

This is the time of year it seems everyone’s coughing. I’ve heard from more than one worried parent that their child coughs to the point of vomiting. In the medical world, we call this post-tussive emesis.

Post = after, tussive = cough, emesis = vomit

Kids tend to have a very active gag reflex, so they sometimes gag themselves and vomit with cough. This can be good, since it gets the mucus out of the back of the throat. You can try to teach older kids to hack and spit it out, cough and spit it out, gargle with salt water, and rinse mucus out of the nose.

Of course it’s not fun to vomit after coughing because everything in the stomach comes up and makes a huge mess. Sometimes the vomit comes out of the nose, which can burn from the stomach acid. And vomiting can be very scary to kids.

Are there serious concerns when kids vomit from coughing?

Yes.

In medical school I learned that when kids cough to the point of vomiting we should consider whooping cough, pneumonia and asthma.

In reality I find that many kids with regular cough and colds can gag from cough, but I always consider the more serious options.

What should I do if my child vomits from a cough?

First, keep your cool.

If a parent starts to get flustered, it makes the child more worried, which never helps.

Make sure your child’s breathing is okay.

Obviously he is coughing, but between coughs if the breathing rate is too fast or labored, he should be evaluated ASAP.

Rinse.

Rinse out your child’s mouth (and nose if needed- saline drops or rinses work well for this). Vomit is just nasty tasting and can burn in the nose.

Treat the cough.

If your child has asthma, give a breathing treatment or their rescue inhaler.

If your child is over a year of age, you can use honey to help a cough. A teaspoon usually does the trick.

Humidify the air with a vaporizer or humidifier.

For more treatments see Cough Medicine: Which one’s best.

When should my child be seen?

If your infant is under a year of age or your child has not had the whooping cough vaccines (Dtap in infants and young kids and Tdap in tweens), he should be evaluated. Some babies with whooping cough stop breathing so many are hospitalized to monitor for complications.

After a single episode of vomiting if your child’s breathing is comfortable, just continue to manage at home.

If your child develops difficulty breathing or dehydration, he should be seen as soon as possible, ideally at a location that routinely cares for children.

If your child continues to vomit after coughing but is comfortable between episodes and is well hydrated, he should be seen during normal business hours at his regular doctor’s office.

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It’s not the flu!

I was at the gym today and an otherwise great instructor who seems to know a lot about health was sharing incorrect information about the flu with the class of about 40 people. She said that she had received several texts from other instructors asking her to cover their classes because they were vomiting. She went on to say that many at first thought it was food poisoning, but it’s spreading like illness, so it’s the flu, not food poisoning. She made a big deal that the flu is here.

That’s only partially right.

Yes…

There’s a stomach bug going around.

It’s not food poisoning.

Influenza is in town.

But this extreme vomiting is not “the flu”

Vomiting can be associated with influenza, but is not the main symptom.

The flu causes predominantly fever, cough, sore throat, and body aches for many days. It can cause vomiting and diarrhea, but those aren’t usually the predominant symptoms. And the flu doesn’t cause just a few hours of extreme vomiting like we’re seeing these days.

Why do I care if people call this stomach bug “flu”?

Runny nose is one of the symptoms of influenza.

The biggest reason I care is that it leads people to make other incorrect assumptions and to get the wrong treatments.

I hear all the time that people had the flu the year they got a flu shot, so they don’t want to get it anymore.

When probed about their illness, it’s usually not consistent with the flu. It was either a cold and cough or a stomach virus.

Cough is one of the most common symptoms of influenza, along with fever, sore throat, and body aches.

They need to know that this isn’t the flu. It wouldn’t be prevented with the flu shot. The flu shot has nothing to do with protecting against most cases of vomiting and diarrhea or most upper respiratory tract infections.

Of course there are people who got the flu shot (or FluMist when it was available) who did come down with the flu. They had a positive flu test and symptoms were consistent with the flu. But if they get influenza after the vaccine they tend to have milder symptoms. They tend to not end up in the hospital or dead if they’ve had the vaccine. Yes, even healthy young people can end up very sick from influenza. They can even die. (The FluMist didn’t protect well and was removed from the market due to this.)

We forget about all the times people did get the vaccine and they didn’t catch the flu even with likely exposure. Lack of disease is easy to fail to acknowledge.

We know the flu vaccine is imperfect. But if the majority of people get vaccinated, we can slow the rate of spread and protect us all against influenza most effectively.

We don’t have great treatments for influenza, so vaccinating and using other precautions is important!