Causes of Projectile Vomiting in Babies, Children, and Adults

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Causes of Projectile Vomiting in Babies, Children, and Adults
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Vomiting is an unpleasant experience at the best of times, but projectile vomiting is especially distressing. Vomiting with tremendous force usually happens suddenly and the contents of the stomach can be projected for a few feet. Infants and newborn children are prone to projectile vomiting because of a condition that blocks food from entering the small intestine. However, adults can also suffer from severe vomiting that forcefully exits the mouth.

Throwing up involves sharp contractions of the abdominal muscles. If these stomach muscle spasms are especially strong, then the burst of vomiting can project stomach contents out of the mouth with tremendous force. Usually, nausea doesn’t precede projectile vomiting, however, depending on the cause of the severe vomiting, a person may feel nauseous beforehand.

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Some common reasons for projectile forceful vomiting are food poisoning, internal blockage, anxiety, or pressure on the brain.

In this article, you will find out what causes projectile vomiting in infants and toddlers and what you should do if this happens. Also, the article examines the reasons why adults can suddenly throw up with so much force that the vomit travels a distance. You will also learn what natural remedies are effective in treating bouts of severe forceful vomiting.

Causes of Projectile Vomiting in Infants

First of all, let’s look at the medical conditions that can cause projectile vomiting in infants.

Pyloric stenosis

Infants can suffer from projectile vomiting that suddenly occurs after feeding if they have pyloric stenosis. This is a serious condition where the pylorus muscles at the bottom of the stomach prevent food from entering the small intestine. Pyloric stenosis usually causes forceful vomiting without any warning.

According to doctors from the Mayo Clinic, pyloric stenosis causes a baby to forcefully vomit up milk up to several feet away. Sometimes the infantile projectile vomiting is preceded by stomach contractions just after feeding. There usually isn’t any bile in the vomit.

Doctors recommend visiting your baby’s doctor if there is projectile vomiting after feeding. This is because there are serious complications associated with pyloric stenosis. For example, frequent severe vomiting can cause dehydration, weight loss, and irritability.1

Dr. Gurvinder Rull on Patient.info says that projectile vomiting in children caused by pyloric stenosis is often mistaken for gastroenteritis. Dr. Rull says that the force of the vomit is “most impressive.”2

Midgut volvulus

A twisted intestine is a condition called midgut volvulus which can cause projectile vomiting in infants and children. This is a condition where the intestine becomes twisted while the baby is developing in the womb and causes an intestinal obstruction.

Dr. Jaime Shalkow on Medscape explains that acute midgut volvulus can bring on sudden projectile vomiting with bile. Sometimes there may be dark specks in the vomit resembling coffee grounds.3

If you notice that your child suffers from bouts of projectile vomiting, then you should see a doctor who will carry out an abdominal examination.

Obstruction

Any chronic obstruction in the gastrointestinal system can cause the stomach to empty its contents with tremendous force. Because the obstruction prevents food from entering the small intestine to be digested, it stays in the stomach until it gets forcefully thrown up.

The European Journal of Pediatric Surgery reported that sometimes projectile vomiting in infants is caused by a gastric outlet obstruction rather than pyloric stenosis.4

Causes of Projectile Vomiting in Adults

Although more common in infants and toddlers, projectile vomiting can also affect people of all ages. Sometimes the reasons for projectile vomiting can also cause less severe bouts of vomiting. For example, you could have the dry heaves where you experience a gag reflex but no food comes up. Or, you could have nausea that results in vomiting bile.

Here are the main causes of projectile vomiting that happens suddenly and with force.

Gastroenteritis

Gastroenteritis can cause severe vomiting that can sometimes be projectile. Gastroenteritis is any kind of inflammation of the gut and it can be caused by a viral or bacterial infection. Gastroenteritis is a common cause of abdominal cramping, diarrhea after eating, and vomiting.

Doctor Myhill from the United Kingdom says that gastroenteritis can be so severe that it causes projectile emptying of the stomach contents. In these cases, a person is at risk of dehydration and should make sure to drink enough fluids.5

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Dr. Thomas Boyce from the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine says that severe vomiting brought on by gastroenteritis can also cause low levels of potassium in the blood, low blood pressure, and electrolyte imbalance.6

To stop projectile vomiting and get rid of the symptoms of gastroenteritis, it’s important to drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration. Doctors from the National Health Service (NHS) in the United Kingdom say that you can also eat bland foods to help your stomach recover from the infection.

Food poisoning

Food poisoning can also cause stomach upset that results in projectile vomiting. Food that has been contaminated with toxins and bacteria can cause explosive diarrhea, stomach cramps, and vomiting that lasts a couple of days.

According to the A.T. Still University, various strains of bacterial infections can cause different food poisoning symptoms. If the Staphylococcus aureus strain of bacteria has contaminated food, then you may have projectile vomiting without a fever and just little diarrhea.7

There are many natural home remedies to get rid of the effects of food poisoning. For example, ginger has anti-inflammatory properties that can help to quickly calm your stomach to prevent projectile vomiting recurring. In fact, a study from 2013 found that ginger is also an antioxidant that can help to destroy toxins and treat bacterial infections.8

You can also take activated charcoal to help get rid of severe vomiting quicker, or use these natural remedies to recover from food poisoning faster.

Bowel obstruction

A bowel obstruction is a serious medical condition that can cause projectile stomach emptying. Because the bowel obstruction doesn’t allow food to be digested properly, you may also have cramping abdominal pain, excess gas, and constipation.

Associate Professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Liliana Bordeianou says that one complication of a blockage in the bowel is severe vomiting. If you have crampy abdominal pains, constipation, and swelling of the abdomen, you should see a doctor for professional medical advice.9

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Stomach obstruction

A stomach obstruction called gastric outlet obstruction can cause forceful projectile vomiting. The gastric outlet obstruction occurs around the pylorus at the bottom of the stomach and prevents food from entering the small intestine.

According to Dr. Andres E Castellanos on Medscape, a common cause of a stomach obstruction is peptic ulcer disease.10  

The journal Annals of Saudi Medicine reported that in some cases, gastric outlet obstruction can cause severe bilious vomiting that is projectile in nature.11

If you have the symptoms of a peptic ulcer-like stomach pain, bloating, excessive burping, and a sour stomach, you can find helpful home remedies for ulcers in my article about natural remedies for helicobacter pylori infections.

Cyclic vomiting syndrome

Cyclic vomiting syndrome (CVS) can cause projectile vomiting in both adults and children. CVS causes recurrent bouts of severe nausea and vomiting that can last for several hours to a few days. Depending on the severity of the cyclic vomiting syndrome, it can affect your daily activities and cause distress.

The National Organization for Rare Disorders reports that CVS can bring on bouts of rapid projectile vomiting that can happen as often as 4 or more times an hour. After the stomach contents have been emptied, a person may still experience dry heaving.12

Doctors from the NHS say that some of the triggers of cyclic vomiting syndrome that bring on severe vomiting with force are stress and anxiety, motion sickness, overeating, or not getting enough sleep.13

Doctors usually recommend preventing recurrent bouts of severe vomiting by knowing and avoiding the triggers. You should also get enough rest and sleep to stay healthy and learn how to manage stress to prevent the feeling of nausea and vomiting.

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Pressure on the brain

Any pressure on your brain can result in forceful or violent emptying of your stomach contents that travels some distance. Of course, any kind of inflammation, swelling, or buildup of fluid in your brain is a serious medical condition that requires prompt medical attention.

Dr. William Anderson from the University of South Carolina School of Medicine says that intracranial pressure can cause projectile vomiting without nausea preceding it.14  

According to Dr. Daniel Kantor, some medical conditions that cause pressure to build up in the brain include meningitis, encephalitis, head injury, stroke, or brain tumor. These conditions can cause vomiting, behavioral changes, seizures, and other neurological symptoms.15

The book Clinical Methods reported that projectile vomiting in the morning when waking up could be a sign of intracranial pressure.16 Also, the Journal of Clinical Diagnostic Research says that encephalitis (inflammation in the brain) can cause vomiting that is projectile in nature, headaches, and double vision.17

Projectile Vomiting – When to See a Doctor

Usually, any bouts of vomiting, even projectile vomiting, should only last one or two days. If episodes of vomiting last for a longer period of time and are associated with other symptoms, you should visit your doctor.

If babies or children continue to vomit or they have projectile vomiting, doctors from the NHS recommend visiting your healthcare practitioner if:

  • Your child can’t keep down any fluids and vomits repeatedly.
  • Your child shows signs of dehydration – for example, crying without tears, or having dry diapers.
  • The vomit is green, contains blood, or black specks like coffee grinds.
  • The vomiting lasts for more than 2 days.

Vomiting in adults can also indicate a serious underlying medical condition. Doctors from the Mayo Clinic recommend visiting your doctor if vomiting is accompanied by:

  • Chest pains.
  • Abdominal cramping.
  • Severe headaches.
  • Vision problems like blurred vision or double vision.
  • Unexplained weight loss along with the vomiting.
  • Bouts of nausea and vomiting that last longer than a month.
  • The vomit contains blood or dark crumb-like bits.

Read these related articles:

Article Sources
  1. MayoClinic. Pyloric stenosis.
  2. PatientInfo. Gastroenteritis.
  3. Medscape. Pediatric small-bowel obstruction.
  4. Eur J Pediatr Surg. 2007 Oct;17(5):362-4.
  5. DrMyhill. Gastroenteritis.
  6. MSDManuals. Overview of gastroenteritis.
  7. ATSU. Noninflammatory gastroenteritis.
  8. Int J Prev Med. 2013 Apr; 4(Suppl 1): S36–S42.
  9. UpToDate. Clinical features of small bowel obstruction.
  10. Medscape. Gastric outlet obstruction.
  11. Ann Saudi Med. 2009 Sep-Oct; 29(5): 393–396.
  12. RareDiseases. Cyclic vomiting syndrome.
  13. NHS. Cyclic vomiting syndrome.
  14. AAFP. Evaluation of nausea and vomiting in adults.
  15. MedlinePlus. Increased intracranial pressure.
  16. Clinical Methods. Nausea and vomiting.
  17. J Clin Diagn Res. 2016 May; 10(5): OD25–OD26.
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