Gastroenteritis or better known as Gastro in young children: they often seem to go hand in hand. When a child is sick, it can be very distressing for both child and parent, so here’s some information to help you understand more about ‘the bug that’s going around’ that might be affecting your child.
What is gastroenteritis, or stomach flu?
Gastroenteritis is an infection of the bowel and is very common in young children. It’s usually the result of a virus (viral gastroenteritis) that is easily contracted from other people, even if they are immune to the virus. Viral gastroenteritis (as opposed to bacterial gastroenteritis) is more common in winter. During this season, people tend to have a weakened immune system. At the same time, we might be a bit more relaxed about preparing food or eating food that hasn’t been in the fridge.
Consuming contaminated food or water can happen more often in winter because we tend to be less cautious about it, especially in colder climates.
Causes of gastroenteritis
There are various agents that can cause an infection. Here are some of the causes of what is commonly called ‘stomach flu’:
#1: Eating contaminated food
Food poisoning is one of the most common causes of gastroenteritis. Cooked food tends to be safe, as high temperatures in the cooking process tend to kill the viruses and bacteria present in food. You must be very careful when you eat raw meat, or even undercooked meat, as sometimes a little time under the heat isn’t enough to kill all the germs that can cause food poisoning.
#2: Drinking contaminated water
Drinking contaminated water is sometimes difficult to avoid.
Our bodies tend to adapt to the region they live in. In our country, drinking tap water tends to be okay and doesn’t usually cause us any problems even if we travel around the country.
If you travel to other countries, however – especially developing countries that have poor sanitation – be very careful about the water you drink.
As a rule of thumb always drink bottled water and avoid ice cubes, as you don’t know the state of the water they’ve been made from. Be sure to wash your hands thoroughly every time you have the opportunity. Make sure you help infants and young children to keep their hands clean as much as possible.
Avoid drinking from natural streams and fountains, even if they’re marked as ‘drinkable water’, as your stomach flora will differ a lot from that of the locals. Water might be safe for local people to drink but could cause a foreigner to have stomach flu.
#3: Person to person contact
If your children come into contact with an infected person it’s very likely they’ll be infected. Stomach flu is easily spread amongst children and also amongst older adults. The incubation period isn’t usually very long and the typical symptoms of gastroenteritis will soon appear.
#4: Weakened immune systems
If children have just been through another illness or have had medical treatment, such as a course of antibiotics, their immune system might be weakened. This makes it easier for viral gastroenteritis to colonize their little bodies.
#5: Viral gastroenteritis
Viral gastroenteritis is the most common type of gastroenteritis. This type of gastroenteritis isn’t a foodborne illness but is mainly passed on from one person to another.
The most common cause for children’s stomach flu is a rotavirus infection. A rotavirus vaccine is available in many countries. Research shows that this vaccine makes a significant difference if administered, in the first year of life, to infants in developing countries.
#6: Bacterial gastroenteritis
Although viral gastroenteritis is the most common type, bacterial gastroenteritis can also happen. Bacterial infections respond well to treatment with antibiotics. This is most helpful when there’s a risk of severe dehydration because of severe diarrhea and severe vomiting. Antibiotics are the best treatment for bacterial infections.
Gastroenteritis in children – symptoms
Viral gastroenteritis symptoms can vary from mild to severe symptoms.
Mild symptoms of gastroenteritis
- Diarrhea is frequently the main symptom of stomach flu
- Vomiting usually follows shortly after the diarrhea. In some cases, vomiting might be the first symptom
- Stomach pain. The digestive tract is infected; therefore abdominal pain is a common symptom of stomach flu
- Crying. When children are unwell, crying is a very useful way to release tension or even to communicate how they’re feeling when they cannot yet communicate verbally
- Fever. Thos is defined as a temperature above 38C.
- Soreness in the nappy area
- Runny nose, sore throat, and coughing
- Body aches. Usually, children will adopt the fetal position to help with their body aches and pains.
Severe symptoms of gastroenteritis
- Dehydration. Anyone can quite rapidly become severely dehydrated with stomach flu. It is usually accompanied by extreme thirst
- Bloody diarrhea. If diarrhea worsens, or if there’s blood accompanying it, seek advice from your pediatrician or family doctor immediately and keep an eye on your child bowel movements. When blood is present in the stools, it can be an indication of bacterial gastro or it could be another illness. A stool sample might be necessary to help with the gastroenteritis diagnosis.
- Other digestive and kidney diseases might be responsible for your child’s symptoms, so make sure you seek medical advice as soon as possible.
Stages of gastro
Gastroenteritis develops fast and its most severe symptoms usually last 48 hours.
Although vomiting might last for only 24 hours or so, diarrhea can persist for up to 10 days.
What should I do if my child has gastro?
If your baby is under six months of age, see your doctor in the first instance. Fluids are the most important thing to remember when your child has gastro, as loss of water due to vomiting and diarrhea can lead to dehydration, which is a serious condition for young children.
Small amounts of fluids should be given frequently. An oral rehydration solution can be purchased in any chemist. It can even be made at home with simple ingredients.
If you are breastfeeding, continue to do so; it will help keep your baby hydrated and nourished. If your child is old enough to be eating solids, a normal diet can be resumed after 24 hours. Offer frequent sips every few minutes and after each bout of vomiting and if your child is not drinking, see your doctor.
If your child has not picked up after seeing your doctor or is appearing to get worse, don’t hesitate to go back to the doctor or to ask for a second opinion. Babies can very quickly deteriorate with gastro.
Do not give children full strength fizzy drinks, juice, or lemonade, as this might increase both diarrhea and dehydration. Mix 1 part juice to 4 parts water.
Gastro is very infectious so ensure good hygiene. Wash your hands thoroughly after each nappy change etc and don’t allow your child to come into contact with others until 24 hours have passed since the last bout of diarrhea or vomiting.
Gastro in young children – treatment
Unfortunately, there is no miracle cure to treat gastroenteritis. The most important thing you can do is to make sure your child has enough water and electrolytes (such as those found in gastrolyte types of drinks), as well as to keep an eye out for more serious symptoms, listed below.
The hypothalamus in the brain raises body temperature as a way of fighting infection. If your child has a fever and is uncomfortable, you might be able to help your child become more comfortable by administering the appropriate dose of children’s Panadol (paracetamol); check with your pharmacist or doctor first.
It’s okay to take off your child’s clothes to help reduce the fever; if you are unable to control the fever, see your doctor. Do not give a cold bath.
Skin to skin is not just something we do right after birth. A healthy person who has skin to skin contact with an infected person with a high temperature can help regulate the body temperature.
Important Signs To Look Out For
If your child displays any of the following symptoms, contact your doctor without delay as your child could be dehydrated and might require admission to hospital.
Symptoms to look out for:
- Sunken eyes
- Dry skin and tongue
- No (or very little) passing of urine; this might be an indication of kidney failure
- Difficulty waking
- Pale skin
- Difficulty breathing.
As much as we don’t like to see our children sick, remember that you cannot totally prevent your child from coming into contact with bacteria or viruses, whether it happens at school, at daycare, or in other public places. It also helps them build a stronger immune system.
Natural remedies for gastro
There are always natural remedies to help little ones (or even yourself) when it comes to upset tummies, vomiting, and diarrhea.
BellyBelly’s Health Professionals Panelist, Tracey Habron, suggests trying the following:
‘If your child is already well onto solids (i.e. not young babies), try mashed banana on dry toast. Or grate an apple, allow it to go brown, and add a few drops of hot water; then mix in a little sugar and cinnamon to taste, and eat slowly.
‘Both of these have natural pectin in them, which binds the stomach and intestines. This is a very common treatment used in nursing homes when patients show symptoms of stomach flu.
‘It is also important that the intake of fluids is maintained. Stick to water or the commercial rehydration formulas that keep mineral salt levels high in the body.
The most important aspect to all of this is to replace the pro-biotics that are being excreted rather quickly. The pro-biotics are crucial in helping with diarrhea. When the gut is in balance, it functions correctly. With diarrhea, however, there is a chance that an infection has killed off many of the pro-biotics, as well as many of them leaving the body with the diarrhea. By replacing them, you give the body a much better chance at getting better faster and then maintaining that balance.
‘I personally recommend In-Liven certified organic probiotic superfood from ONE Group – the only one in existence. Not only does it replace 13 strains of pro-biotics, it also contains 18 amino acids and 26 certified organic wholefoods. It’s super nutrition in a spoon of green powder. Give 1/8th of a teaspoon to young children to start with, then build up to 1/4 of a teaspoon’.
For more information click here.
By being informed, comforting your child, and providing him with what he needs to get through a bout of gastro, you’re already doing the very best job you possibly can as a parent – so don’t be hard on yourself! Trust your instincts and take your child to the doctor if you are worried.
What can I give a baby with gastro?
Although it’s heart breaking to see a baby suffering with stomach flu, follow your instinct and your baby’s cues. Also, follow the advice your healthcare provider gives you. If you’re breastfeeding, offer your breast regularly. Your milk is the number one life saver when your baby has diarrhea and vomiting. Breast milk will correct mild dehydration better than any marketed rehydration formula.
If you’re formula feeding your baby, offer baby milk regularly. Be extra cautious when preparing the bottles and change and sterilize them frequently. Contaminated food or water is one of the biggest risk factors for developing gastroenteritis.
Read more in our article Gastro And Your Child – Dealing With Gastro.