The Stomach Flu and Your Child
Viral gastroenteritis – what we call “The Stomach Flu.”
Stomach flu in children – or viral gastroenteritis – can be unsettling and something that all parents dread. Stomach bugs are a common illness in kids and usually only lasts a few days. The most common cause of stomach flu in kids are viruses such as rotavirus and norovirus. Other viruses like adenovirus and some types of bacterial infection of the digestive tract cause stomach bugs, but less commonly. These infectious diseases can cause a child’s stomach to turn and lead to vomiting and diarrhea. However, it generally just requires hydration to best combat the illness. It can be rightfully concerning if your child is not eating, but even still, this is usually not a concern as long as they are drinking plenty of fluids.
What are common stomach flu symptoms?
When kids have the stomach flu, they may have abdominal pain and vomiting, and diarrhea. A child’s stomach may feel upset when they have a stomach virus. Young children and older children can get a stomach bug, and it usually resolves on its own. Some kids have symptoms such as an increased number of bowel movements and no vomiting. Most children have vomiting for a day or two, followed by watery diarrhea for a few days.
I recommend having them take small sips. Often, five or 10 mL every 20 or 30 minutes should suffice. As long as your child does not suffer from excessive fluid loss through diarrhea or vomiting and retains some fluid through sugar and salt, they will remain hydrated enough when they have the stomach flu.
An Electrolyte Drink like Pedialyte or coconut water can be used, though some children are off-put by the taste. Oral rehydration solutions, like Gatorade, which has less salt and more sugar, can also help. In my home, we mix a small amount of Gatorade with Pedialyte. Small amounts of juice diluted with water may be helpful, though the juice can worsen diarrhea, so be sure to monitor your child for these symptoms. Contrary to popular belief, milk does not need to be avoided but cut back to make diarrhea worse. Some children do benefit from a lactose-free beverage, as lactose may irritate the belly further.
Please see your doctor immediately if you are concerned that your child is dehydrated from the stomach flu. Some signs of dehydration and symptoms of dehydration include dizziness, dark urine, lethargy, dry mouth, dry skin, and dry lips.
Some forms of bacteria gastroenteritis require antibiotic treatment. Your doctor may suggest collecting a stool sample to send for culture. If bacteria grow in the stool, your doctor may recommend antibiotics to treat the illness. If a parasite is present in the stool, anti-parasitic medications may be prescribed.
Stomach Flu Treatment – What to eat after symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea
Once diarrhea and vomiting subside, your child can go back to eating a regular diet — though some children benefit from eating lactose-reduced or lactose-free foods for a few weeks to prevent further irritation. You want to prevent dehydration and replace lost fluids, so ensure your child drinks plain water along with other rehydrating solutions like sports drinks, dilute orange juice, flat ginger ale, or diluted apple juice if your child prefers. Clear broths work too. Make sure your child drinks small amounts but frequently to prevent dehydration. If they are dehydrated, that will make the problem worse, and they will feel sicker. There is no need to follow the ‘BRAT’ diet (bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast). If your child is more comfortable eating bland foods, you can stick to these solid foods. I suggest avoiding very acidic or spicy foods. Younger children and infants may prefer bread, cereal, and other dry and crunchy foods. You can offer an oral rehydration solution like Pedialyte, but it is not often required. Some older kids may prefer to chew or suck on ice chips, but ensure there is no choking hazard. Once your child has an appetite again, they can eat what they crave, but in small amounts to prevent stomach pain and diarrhea. If they prefer to stick to bland foods, this is ok. Just remember — if your child’s appetite has returned, that’s a good sign that the illness is beginning to subside!
Infants can continue to drink breast milk or baby formula as usual. Babies do not require a particular rehydration solution if they are drinking milk well.
If you have concerned about your child’s health, seek out your healthcare provider to provide medical advice. Dehydration is rare from the stomach flu, and most kids only have vomiting for a few hours. When kids have a stomach bug, they may have vomiting or diarrhea, but often home remedies are all they need to feel better again.
Preventing viral illness and stomach flu
The easiest way to prevent stomach flu is to avoid children with diarrheal illnesses, wash hands frequently, practice good toilet hygiene, avoid contamination, and be wary of eating undercooked foods, washing fruits and vegetables entirely, and cleaning counters and utensils thoroughly after use can prevent the spread of bacteria. Always ensure that you refrigerate meats as soon as possible to prevent the growth of bacteria. Children should avoid drinking contaminated water in lakes, rivers, or pool water, as they are often infested with bacteria. If you plan to travel to less-developed countries, please discuss prevention tips with your doctor ahead of time.
WHEN TO BE WORRIED – Severe abdominal pain and severe diarrhea
Please see your healthcare provider or go to the emergency room if your child or has stomach flu symptoms and:
Recurrent prolonged episodes of diarrhea
Severe stomach pain
Blood or mucus in the stool
Lack of urine in infants
Sunken, dull, non-glossy eyes or no tears
Sunken fontanel in a baby (flat or concave soft spot)
If you are worried about a medical emergency, please do not delay going to the emergency room or seeing your child’s pediatrician ASAP.
After the stomach flu
Unfortunately, some children with the symptoms of stomach flu will have ongoing diarrhea for weeks. However, this is usually self-limited, and as long as your child is drinking plenty of fluids, they should get better. Avoid excessive intake of dairy products as they may make stomach bugs linger longer.
Diarrhea is one of the most common illnesses in children and is difficult to avoid, so be sure to help your child drink plenty of fluids. Dehydration occurs very infrequently, so you need not be worried. Vomiting or diarrhea usually self resolves without any intervention at all. If you are armed with the warning signs and know how best to treat them, you will be prepared to help your child take on this illness.
When should kids stay out of daycare or school for stomach flu?
Please be wary of sending your child to public places if they are sick. This can spread the illness and contaminate other children and families. Children should stay out of daycare or school if:
If they have uncontrollable diarrhea
If they are actively vomiting
If they have a persistent fever
If your child feels unwell
Diarrhea in Babies and Children
Lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of babies and toddlers with diarrhea and stomach flu; many having had diarrhea for a week or more. When a baby has diarrhea, parents naturally become concerned about hydration and weight loss. Read more on diarrhea in babies and children.
Dina is a wife, mother of 4, and adrenaline junky. She loves to share children’s health information from her professional and personal experience. More About Dr Dina.