Gastroenteritis, sometimes known as the stomach flu, is a frequent childhood condition characterised by nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, and abdominal pain. Contrary to some belief, it’s totally unrelated to the regular flu (influenza), which affects the respiratory system.
Babies, toddlers, and young children are especially prone to gastroenteritis because their immune systems are still forming, so they haven’t yet built up the antibodies to fight off germs.
The good news is that the illness often resolves itself within ten days without treatment. The bad news is that the first few days of gastroenteritis can be extremely challenging for parents and children.
Your child may have cycles of violent vomiting and “explosive” diarrhoea, experience chills, body aches and headaches, and be inconsolable.
What causes the stomach flu?
Norovirus is a common cause of stomach flu. Norovirus can spread rapidly among children and is most prevalent in the winter months.
Good to know: While viruses are the most common cause of gastroenteritis, bacteria can also sometimes be responsible.
Can you treat gastroenteritis at home?
There is no special therapy for gastroenteritis, and the majority of children can recover at home. These tips may help your child feel better and speed up their recovery.
- Ensure your child stays hydrated. Chronic vomiting and diarrhoea can quickly lead to dehydration, especially in younger children, so ensure your child is taking in ample liquids. In addition to liquids, oral rehydration solutions are also available without a prescription in pharmacies and supermarkets. Paediatricians often advise waiting an hour or two after the last episode of vomiting before giving your child a teaspoon or less of breast milk, formula, water, or Pedialyte every 10 minutes for the next hour to see whether they can keep the liquids down.
- Do not offer your child undiluted fruit juice, soda, or sports drinks. These are high in sugar, which can exacerbate diarrhoea.
- Do your best to help your child get a lot of sleep and rest.
- When your child has stopped vomiting, you can offer them small portions of solid foods such as bread, crackers, rice, banana, or mashed potatoes.
- Avoid greasy foods, as they can exacerbate diarrhoea.
- Do not administer over-the-counter medications for diarrhoea or vomiting unless instructed to do so by a physician.
- Keep your child out of school or daycare until 24 hours have passed without vomiting, fever, or diarrhoea, and the condition has improved.
Good to know: What makes stomach flu particularly virulent is that children are contagious before they actually show any symptoms.
When to seek medical advice
Consult a physician if your child:
- Has signs of dehydration, such as crying with few or no tears, a dry mouth or cracked lips.
- Has a high fever
- Has blood in their faeces or vomit
- Has been vomiting for more than 24 hours
- Has diarrhoea that does not improve after several days.
Is gastroenteritis preventable?
The pathogens that cause gastroenteritis are infectious. The greatest strategy to protect your child from getting sick is to prevent the spread of germs:
- Teach all family members to frequently and thoroughly wash their hands. They should use soap and water for at least 20 seconds. This is especially crucial before preparing or consuming meals and after using the restroom.
- Disinfect frequently-touched surfaces such as furniture (including your child’s changing table), doorknobs, and cellphones, as well as toys.
- Wash your child’s clothing and bedding.
- Adhere to food safety regulations to prevent bacteria and viruses from entering food and beverages (food poisoning).
- Ensure that your children receive all prescribed vaccinations on schedule.