If you have little ones, you’re not a stranger to the infamous stomach bug. It spreads quickly among classmates at school, causes an upset tummy and, fortunately, only lasts a few days.
So, what exactly is the stomach bug? Gastroenteritis, often called the stomach bug or the stomach flu, is a common illness that causes nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and belly cramps. Dr. Alicia Webb, emergency medicine at Children’s of Alabama, says most stomach bugs run their course within a few days with plenty of fluids and rest at home.
What Causes Gastroenteritis?
Gastroenteritis happens when germs (viruses, bacteria or parasites) infect the stomach or intestines, causing inflammation. In kids, viruses are the most common cause of gastroenteritis.
Many of the germs that cause gastroenteritis spread easily. Someone can get sick if they:
- Touch something contaminated and then touch food or their mouth.
- Share food or drinks with someone who is sick.
- Live with someone who’s infected, even if that person isn’t sick.
What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Gastroenteritis?
The most common signs of gastroenteritis are vomiting and diarrhea. Many children also have a fever.
When kids have diarrhea or vomiting, they lose lots of fluid. This can lead to dehydration. If that happens, the body can have trouble working as it should.
How Is Gastroenteritis Treated?
There is no specific treatment for gastroenteritis, and most kids can be treated at home.
“It is okay if your child is less interested in food, but it is important to make sure your child stays well hydrated,” Dr. Webb says. Keep your child hydrated by offering plenty of liquids. Kids with more severe dehydration may need treatment in the emergency department or hospital.
Mild dehydration is treated with oral (by mouth) rehydration. This usually includes giving oral rehydration solution (such as Pedialyte, Enfalyte or a store brand). It has the right amounts of water, sugar and salt to help with dehydration. You can buy it without a prescription at drugstores or supermarkets. If you can’t get oral rehydration solution, talk to your doctor.
If your child has mild dehydration and your doctor says it’s OK to start treatment at home:
- Give your child an oral electrolyte solution as often as possible. If your child throws up, start with small sips, about 1 or 2 teaspoons every few minutes.
- Babies can continue to breastfeed or take formula as long as they are not throwing up repeatedly.
- Don’t give babies plain water instead of oral rehydration solution. It doesn’t have the right nutrients for babies with dehydration.
- Older children can have frozen electrolyte popsicles.
- Do not give your child full-strength juice (undiluted), soda or sports drinks. These have a lot of sugar, which can make diarrhea worse.
When your child stops vomiting, you can offer small amounts of solid foods, such as toast, crackers, rice or mashed potatoes. Yogurt, fruits, vegetables and lean meat, like chicken, are also acceptable.
A child who isn’t throwing up can eat a regular diet, if they feel up to it. It may take time for them to feel like eating. There’s no need to avoid dairy unless it makes the vomiting or diarrhea worse. Avoid fatty foods, which can make diarrhea worse.
To help your child feel better, let your child rest as needed. You can give medicine for fever or pain, like acetaminophen or ibuprofen (do not give ibuprofen to babies under 6 months old), if your doctor says it’s OK. Follow the package directions for how much medicine to give and how often.
Don’t give medicines for diarrhea or vomiting unless your doctor instructs you to do so.
Keep your child out of school or childcare until 24 hours without vomiting or fever and diarrhea has improved.
When Should I Call the Doctor?
Dr. Webb says it’s important to “call your doctor or seek medical care if your child has vomiting or diarrhea and starts to act very sick, has signs of severe dehydration, develops a rash, or you notice blood in the vomit or diarrhea.”
Additionally, call the doctor if your child:
- can’t drink for several hours
- is peeing (urinating) less often (more than 4–6 hours for babies and 6-8 hours for older children)
- has signs of dehydration, such as crying with few or no tears, having a dry mouth or cracked lips, feeling dizzy or lightheaded, acting very sleepy or less alert
- has a high fever
- is vomiting for more than 24 hours or the diarrhea doesn’t get better after several days