Gastro and young children – the two 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’.
What is gastroenteritis?
Gastroenteritis is an infection of the digestive tract, more specifically the bowel. Gastroenteritis in children is very common. It is usually the result of a virus, which is easily contracted from other people, even if they are immune to the virus. Gastroenteritis is usually referred to as stomach flu.
Viral gastroenteritis in children
Viral gastroenteritis is the most common type of bowel infection. Among all the different viruses that may cause acute gastroenteritis, rotavirus infections are the most common cause of gastroenteritis viral infection in children.
Viral gastroenteritis (as opposed to bacterial gastroenteritis) is more common in winter. This is because our immune systems are a little bit weaker in colder weather and also because viruses prefer lower temperatures.
Bacterial gastroenteritis in children
Although viral gastroenteritis is the most common gastroenteritis diagnosed, gastroenteritis caused by a bacterial infection is also quite upsetting and our children’s health can deteriorate quickly if we don’t act fast.
Food poisoning, caused by eating food that has been colonized by bacteria and filled with bacterial toxins, is the main cause of bacterial gastroenteritis in children.
Gastroenteritis in children – symptoms
There are many symptoms that are common to most children’s infections:
- Runny nose
- Sore throat
- Bad stomach pain.
More specific symptoms of gastroenteritis are:
- Vomiting. When your child has gastroenteritis, the bowel is infected and needs to rest. The body tries to help the bowel rest by keeping food away from it. That’s why vomiting occurs with gastro, even if the infection is not in the stomach. When the gastroenteritis is very severe, the child might pass green vomit. This is because food intake and digestion are altered and the bile, although secreted, doesn’t get food to mix up with, so when the child vomits it appears green
- Diarrhea stool. Diarrhoea, usually accompanied by stomach cramps, tends to be the first indicator of gastroenteritisWhether you have a baby or an older child, seek medical advice as soon as the child’s symptoms of gastroenteritis appear. Preventing dehydration is the most important factor when dealing with gastroenteritis in children.
If your child presents bleeding or mucus in the stools you should contact your doctor immediately. This could be bacterial gastro but it could also be another illness with similar symptoms. A clear diagnosis could be decisive for your child’s condition and fast recovery.
Although vomiting might last for only 24 hours or so, diarrhoea 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.
When your children have gastro, drinking fluids is the most important thing they can do. A lot of fluid is lost, due to vomiting and diarrhoea, and this can lead to severe dehydration, a serious condition for many children, especially very young children.
You can prevent dehydration if you replace the fluid lost. Small amounts of fluids should be given frequently. If you are breastfeeding, continue to do so. Breast milk is the best natural oral rehydration fluid.
If your child is old enough to be eating solids, this can be resumed after 24 hours. Offer a drink after each bout of vomiting and if your child is not drinking, see your doctor. If your child has not picked up after seeing the doctor appears to be getting worse, do not hesitate to go back to the doctor or look for a second opinion. Babies’ health can deteriorate very quickly when they have gastro.
You might not need to seek medical advice immediately for older children. This really depends on your child’s symptoms. Do not hesitate to contact your healthcare provider if you’re unsure, if you have any worries or if your little ones’ symptoms persist, despite all your efforts to keep them hydrated.
Do not give full-strength fizzy or sports drinks, juice, or lemonade, as this could increase both diarrhoea and dehydration. Instead, mix 1 part juice to 4 parts of water. It’s always better to give your child an oral rehydration solution designed for this specific purpose. Drinking milk will always be the first choice for infants.
Gastro is very infectious, so ensure good hygiene, especially when holding and handling an infected person. Contact with infected stool is how this infection passes from one person to another, so wash your hands and changing surface thoroughly after each nappy change.
When a child has gastroenteritis, make sure the whole family washes their hands frequently, too. Remove the child from other family members until 24 hours after the last episode of diarrhoea or vomiting.
Unfortunately, there is no miracle cure to treat gastroenteritis. Research shows that the most important thing you can do to help is to make sure your child has enough water and electrolytes (i.e. an oral electrolyte solution, such as gastrolyte types of drinks). You should also keep an eye out for more serious symptoms; some of them are listed below.
The hypothalamus in the brain raises body temperature as a way to fight infection. If children have a fever, you might be able to help them become more comfortable by administering the appropriate dose of children’s Panadol (paracetamol). Check with your pharmacist or doctor. It’s okay to take off a child’s clothes to help reduce fever; however, if you are unable to control the fever, see your doctor. Do not give the child a cold bath.
Offer babies your breast (or their normal formula, if they’re bottle fed) at frequent intervals. Be extra vigilant.
Important signs to look out for
If your child displays symptoms and signs of dehydration, contact your doctor without delay. Your child might be dehydrated and might require admission to the hospital.
Symptoms of dehydration are:
- Sunken eyes
- Dry skin and tongue
- No (or very little) passing of urine
- Bloody or watery stools
- Difficulty waking
- Pale skin
- Difficulty breathing.
As much as we don’t like to see our children sick, remember that it’s impossible to completely prevent bacteria or viruses from coming into contact with your child, whether at school, in daycare, or in other public places. Exposure to bacteria also helps to build a stronger immune system. Because we are all part of a community, child health – and adult health, too, for that matter – becomes stronger by sharing ailments. The community’s immune system grows stronger as a result.
There are always natural remedies to help little ones (or even yourself) when it comes to upset tummies, vomiting, and diarrhea.
BellyBelly’s Health Panelist, Tracey Habron, suggests the following:
‘Try mashed banana on dry toast. Or grate an apple and allow it to go brown. Mix in a little sugar and cinnamon to taste and eat slowly. Both of these have natural pectin in them that bind the stomach and intestines.
‘It is also important that the intake of fluids is maintained. Offer frequent amounts of water. Stick to plain water or the commercial rehydration formulas that keep mineral salt levels high in the body.
‘The most important aspect of all of this is to replace the probiotics that are being excreted rather quickly. The pro-biotics are crucial in helping with diarrhea. When the gut is in balance, it functions correctly. However, with diarrhea, there is a chance that an infection has killed off many of the probiotics. Also, many of them are leaving the body with diarrhea. By replacing them, you give the body a much better chance of getting better faster and then maintaining that balance and preventing gastroenteritis from happening again.
‘I personally recommend Fast-Tract Liquid pro-biotic or In-Liven certified organic probiotic superfood from ONE Group — the only one in existence. Not only is it replacing 13 strains of probiotics, it also contains 18 amino acids and 26 certified organic whole foods. It’s super nutrition in a spoon of green powder. Give 1/8th of a teaspoon to young children to start, building up to 1/4 of a teaspoon’.
By being informed, comforting your children, and providing them with what they need 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.
As long as your child is well hydrated, don’t worry too much about food. Most children will refuse food when they have food poisoning. Their instinct is actually telling them what to do. Giving the digestive tract a rest is a very good idea in the first stages of gastro. Offer bland foods and make sure they’re drinking plenty of fluids. If your child asks for a specific food, give it to him; it’s most likely to be what he needs right then.
How long does gastro last in toddlers?
Gastroenteritis usually lasts about 48 hours. These can be very long hours for a toddler who has to suffer through them. He’s vomiting, he has diarrhoea, his little body aches, he has cold hands and fee, and maybe other symptoms like a dry mouth. He needs his mother all the time. Just make sure he’s well hydrated, fill up his sippy cup with an oral rehydration solution and offer it frequently. Skin to skin and cuddles to keep his temperature down are always a good idea.
Always contact your health care provider if you’re worried or need some reassurance.
If my child has gastro will I get it?
Gastroenteritis is very contagious. That’s why, in child care centers, they ask you to not take your child back until he’s been clear from vomiting and diarrhoea for at least 24 hours.
When your child has gastro, it’s very likely you will get it as you’re the main carer and will come into contact with his body fluids. It’s very difficult to avoid getting gastroenteritis when you’re looking after a child who has it.
Should I stay home if my child has gastro?
This is a very good idea, as gastroenteritis is highly contagious. If you can reduce the number of people who are in contact with your child, it’s a great way of stopping gastro from spreading. If you belong to a ‘raising children network’, make sure you let them know about your child’s condition, in order to prevent gastro in the other children and their families.