Vomiting in Infants

This is not a problem that GPs anticipate with relish. And it is not only the potential impact on clothes or carpet that they are worried about – in the acute scenario, the differential is wide and encompasses some serious illnesses. Ongoing vomiting is less of an urgent worry, with a narrower range of possibilities.

Published: 1st August 2022 | Updated: 15th August 2022

Differential diagnosis

Common Diagnoses

  • URTI (Vomiting Secondary to Coughing)
  • Gastro-Oesophageal Reflux/GORD
  • Gastroenteritis
  • Any Acute Febrile Illness (e.g. Otitis Media, Tonsillitis, UTI, Meningitis, Pneumonia)
  • Cow’s Milk Protein Intolerance

Occasional Diagnoses

  • Feeding Mismanagement (Overfeeding)
  • Pyloric Stenosis
  • Intussusception
  • Other Causes of Bowel Obstruction

Rare Diagnoses

  • Metabolic
  • Raised Intracranial Pressure
  • Other Causes of the Acute Surgical Abdomen
  • Diabetes

Ready reckoner

Key distinguishing features of the most common diagnoses

URTIGastro-Oesophageal Reflux/GORDGastroenteritisAcute Febrile IllnessCMPI
Infant off FeedsPossibleNoYesYesNo

Possible investigations

  • It is highly unlikely that the GP would arrange any investigations in this scenario. If the level of concern or diagnostic uncertainty is such that the child needs investigating, then it would need referral (usually urgently). Even if a UTI is suspected as the cause, then investigations in primary care become academic – if the child is unwell enough to be vomiting with a UTI, then it needs hospital assessment.

Top Tips

  • Take time to clarify the clinical picture. Many parents will describe florid vomiting when they actually mean retching after bouts of coughing. They also have a tendency to call many episodes of vomiting ‘projectile’, so take time to get them to describe what they mean.
  • In the acute situation, a precise diagnosis may be difficult and the consultation is more about whether observation or admission is required. Work through the most relevant issues systematically. Is the child dehydrated? Is this sepsis? Is it an acute abdomen? And, if all the above are negative, is the child ill enough to require admission anyway?
  • Bear in mind that gastro-oesophageal reflux and GORD are not the same thing. The former can be considered normal and self-limiting; the latter shares some features with simple reflux but also causes distress or other symptoms.
  • In ongoing vomiting in an otherwise well child, the likely diagnoses are feeding mismanagement, GORD or CMPI.

Red Flags

  • In the acutely ill child, use the NICE traffic light system and sepsis screens early in your assessment – if the child is seriously ill then it needs admission regardless of precise diagnosis.
  • Genuinely projectile vomiting in infants up to 2 or 3 months of age should be taken seriously – pyloric stenosis needs excluding.
  • Bile stained vomiting, particularly with abdominal swelling, suggests intestinal obstruction.
  • Beware the vomiting infant with screaming episodes associated with pallor – this could be intussusception.
  • Recurrent vomiting with failure to thrive requires a specialist opinion.
  • A bulging fontanelle, decreased responsiveness or rapidly increasing head circumference associated with vomiting suggests raised intracranial pressure – this needs urgent assessment.
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Website disclaimer

Pulse Reference is based on the best-selling book Symptom Sorter.

The experts behind Pulse Reference are Dr Keith Hopcroft who is the co-author of Symptom Sorter, a GP in Essex and Pulse’s editorial advisor and Dr Poppy Freeman, a GP in Camden and also a clinical advisor to Pulse.

This website is for clinical guidance only and cannot give definitive diagnostic information. Practitioners should work within the limits of their individual professional practice, seek guidance when necessary and refer appropriately.