Though distressing for both little ones and their parents, it's not unusual for toddlers to get sick with illnesses that cause both coughing and throwing up. Coughing commonly triggers vomiting in a toddler by activating the child's gag reflex. Swallowing mucus from the nose, sinuses or lungs can also cause an upset stomach and vomiting. In most cases, the vomiting stops when the cough quiets down. Since some causes of coughing and vomiting can be serious, talk with your doctor if your toddler has these symptoms.
As every parent knows, toddlers frequently come down with colds and other illnesses. Viral infections of the nose, sinuses, throat and upper airways of the lungs are particularly common. These illnesses often cause a cough and/or post-nasal drip -- mucus that runs down the throat and is subsequently swallowed into the stomach -- either of which can trigger vomiting. Nasal allergies are another common cause of cough with occasional vomiting due to post-nasal drip. In toddlers with asthma, a hard coughing fit often provokes vomiting. The vomiting associated with these infections and illnesses is usually sporadic, and the child typically continues to eat and drink normally after throwing up.
Less Common Causes
Some less common infections that affect toddlers can cause a severe cough and possible vomiting. Whooping cough, also called pertussis, notoriously causes bouts of hard coughing that are frequently followed by vomiting, especially in young children. Pneumonia, bronchitis and bronchiolitis -- a viral infection of the small airways that typically affects children 2 years or younger -- also frequently cause intense coughing that may trigger vomiting. These and other infections that affect a toddler's airways and lungs can be serious or even life-threatening in severe cases. Emergency medical attention is needed any time a toddler experiences difficulty breathing.
Treatment for coughing and throwing up in a toddler depends on the cause. For a simple cold, giving the child one-half to a full teaspoon of honey or applying vapor rub to the chest and neck may temporarily relieve coughing and thereby alleviate vomiting. A cool mist vaporizer might also reduce coughing and associated vomiting. Over-the-counter cough syrups are not recommended for children younger than 6 years and may be harmful in this age group.
Asthma and allergy medicines are used to control coughing related to these two conditions. For bacterial infections, antibiotics are usually prescribed. However, most infections toddlers come down with are caused by viruses -- and antibiotics are not helpful against viruses. Giving a youngster plenty of fluids might help calm a cough and prevents dehydration from throwing up. Hospital care may be needed if a toddler has difficulty breathing or becomes dehydrated.
When to Seek Medical Help
Most viral illnesses clear on their own in about a week in an otherwise healthy toddler. But it's best to talk with your doctor if your toddler is coughing and throwing up, especially if your child has an ongoing health concern, such as asthma, or a digestive or neurological condition. Contact your doctor right away if your toddler is vomiting for more than a few hours, has a severe, persistent or worsening cough, a fever higher than 102 F, or any signs of dehydration, such a dry mouth, few tears when crying, excessive sleepiness, urinating less than usual, or cool hands and feet. If you cannot reach your doctor, seek urgent medical care. Seek emergency medical care if your toddler has trouble breathing, vomits material that contains blood, or you notice blue, purple or grey discoloration of your child's skin.
Reviewed and revised by: Tina M. St. John, M.D.