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Stomach bugs in children

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 4 minutes read
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Children catch stomach bugs very easily, and they feel pretty rotten while it lasts. It can be tough to see them unwell, but parents also feel exasperated that it will be a few days before their child or toddler can return to school or nursery.

Signs and symptoms of gastroenteritis in children

Stomach bugs, also known as gastroenteritis or "stomach flu", mostly cause diarrhea, vomiting, stomach ache, pain or cramps, and sometimes fever. Most tummy bugs are infections caused by a virus and essentially the body just needs time to do the hard work of getting rid of it. Unfortunately, there's nothing doctors can prescribe to chase it away any sooner, it resolves by itself.

But there are ways to help them feel more comfortable while they battle on, and there are things you can give them to avoid further illness.

What causes stomach bugs?

Tummy bugs are most often viral, but they can also be caused by bacteria and parasites. Rotavirus is the most common gastric virus, with nearly every child in the US coming across it by the age of 5 years, and they are given a vaccine in the US childhood immunization program, to protect them. Adenovirus and norovirus can also cause diarrhea and vomiting.

Bacterial infection can cause fever and bloody diarrhea, and they may appear more unwell. The most likely bacteria are Campylobacter, E. coli , and Salmonella.

Doctor’s advice

How long does gastroenteritis last?

Symptoms usually last between 24 and 48 hours, but may last up to 10 days – hopefully with improvement during that time.

With infective gastroenteritis, your child or toddler is contagious from the time they get the first symptoms of diarrhea or vomiting until they have recovered.

Vomiting usually lasts 1 to 2 days, diarrhea from 5 to 7 days, and they need a further 2 days since their last vomit or diarrhea before they can go back to school. For parents, this is a dreaded several days off work to stay home with them.

They should stay off school and avoid pregnant or immunocompromised people until their symptoms have resolved for 48 hours.

Handy tips to relieve stomach bugs

When children catch gastroenteritis, they lose additional fluids through vomiting and diarrhea. This can cause dehydration. As a result, it’s important to make sure your child drinks plenty of water little and often throughout the day.

Keep them hydrated

Aim for sips, little and often, to avoid dehydration, as large intakes all at once can stretch the stomach and stimulate vomiting. Keep an eye on their intake and how much urine they are passing to ensure they are hydrated enough.

Adapt breast feeding or bottles

If your baby or toddler is bottle or breast fed, try giving smaller feeds more often, and they can have sips of water in between, and keep an eye on the number of wet diapers and how heavy they feel, compared to usual.

Top up electrolytes

Diarrhea and vomiting risk not only dehydration but also loss of important electrolytes like sodium and potassium, which can make them feel worse and puts them at risk of serious illness. Rehydration salts can help redress the balance.

Avoid infection spread

Stomach bugs are very contagious, and you want to avoid the whole household from coming down with an infection. If you have more than one bathroom, try to keep one solely for your infected child to use, and avoid them sharing cutlery or cups, clothes or towels with anyone else in the family. Wash any contaminated clothes, bedding or towels separately on a hot wash.

Wash your hands

Everyone in the house should follow strict hand hygiene, including washing hands with soap and water after toileting and before preparing or eating food. Those who are unwell should not prepare or serve food for others.

Stick to plain foods

Dairy products, sugary foods, spicy and flavorful food should be avoided. Sticking to soft, dry, basic foods like soup or dry toast is best.

When should my child see a doctor?

You should discuss with your doctor if your child is:

  • vomiting and unable to keep fluids down

  • drinking considerably less over a 12 to 24 hour period, or breast/bottle feeding less

  • passing considerably less urine, or having fewer wet diapers, or urine smells strong and looks dark

  • having diarrhea for more than 7 days

  • vomiting for more than 2 days

  • has bloody diarrhea or bleeding from the rectum

  • travelled to south-east Asia or Africa within the last 3 months

You should go to the Emergency Department or call 911 if your child has:

  • severe abdominal pain

  • vomited blood or what looks like coffee grounds

  • green or yellowy-green vomit

  • a stiff neck, a new rash, and is unable to look at bright lights

  • a sudden severe headache

  • seems unwell – trust your instinct

How to prevent stomach bugs

The best way to prevent stomach bugs from making your child unwell is to practice good hygiene, and encourage your child to practice good hygiene. It’s important that everyone washes their hands thoroughly with antibacterial soap and water after using the bathroom and before eating.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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