Fever and vomiting are common in children but worrisome to parents and other caregivers. In fact, these symptoms are among the most common reasons for taking children to the emergency room, according to a study published in the August 2005 issue of "Academic Emergency Medicine." Digestive system infections are the leading cause of these symptoms. An infection elsewhere in the body or appendicitis might also be the culprit. Accompanying signs and symptoms help distinguish among the possible causes of fever and vomiting in children.
Digestive System Infections
Gastroenteritis -- an infection of the stomach or intestines -- is the most common cause of fever and throwing up in children. According to the 2011 edition of "Netter's Pediatrics," it is estimated that more than 20 million cases of gastroenteritis occur each year in children under 5 years of age in the United States 5. This type of infection is usually accompanied by watery diarrhea and stomach pain. Gastroenteritis is usually caused by a virus, but it can also be the result of a bacteria or parasite infection. If gastroenteritis occurs after a child has eaten food contaminated with a virus or bacteria, it is sometimes called food poisoning. Gastroenteritis is also commonly known as a "stomach bug" or "stomach virus."
Fevers are usually caused by viral or bacterial infections. In children, infections that cause fevers frequently produce throwing up as well. Infections in the throat, such as strep throat, are a common cause of fever and vomiting in children. Even ear infections can bring on these symptoms. Lung infections, like pneumonia, and bladder infections can also cause fever and vomiting in children.
Fever and throwing up sometimes signal less common but more serious infections like meningitis -- an infection of the tissues surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis generally causes other symptoms as well, including extreme sleepiness, neck stiffness and sometimes a rash. Bloodstream infections and pertussis, also known as whooping cough, may also cause a child to have fever and vomiting.
Fever and vomiting associated with severe abdominal pain can signal appendicitis. The appendix is a small structure in the intestines, located in the right lower area of the abdomen. Sometimes it gets swollen and inflamed, a condition known as appendicitis. Poor appetite typically occurs with -- and may even begin before -- the abdominal pain, fever and vomiting. Appendicitis is an emergency and requires immediate treatment, which generally includes antibiotics and surgery to remove the appendix.
When to Seek Medical Care
Dehydration is one of the most dangerous consequences of fever and vomiting, so make sure your child receives plenty of fluids. Although most children with fever and vomiting recover quickly without treatment, these symptoms sometimes indicate a serious problem. Seek medical care immediately if your child has any of the following:
- severe abdominal pain
- vomiting that is not improving
- sluggishness or drowsiness
- rapid or difficult breathing
- fever of 104 degrees Fahrenheit or higher
Even if your child doesn't have these symptoms, it's still important to call your doctor if your child is younger than 3 months; has fever and vomiting lasting more than 12 hours; or has a fever persisting for more than 3 days.
Reviewed by: Mary D. Daley, MD
- Academic Emergency Medicine: A System for Grouping Presenting Complaints: The Pediatric Emergency Reason for Visit Clusters
- Emergency Medicine Journal: Nausea, Vomiting, and Fever
- American Family Physician: Gastroenteritis in Children: Part I. Diagnosis
- HealthyChildren.org: When to Call the Pediatrician: Fever
- Netter's Pediatrics; Todd Florin et al.