Gastroenteritis (Stomach Flu) In Children: Symptoms, Causes, And Treatment

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Eight-year-old Robbie complained of a tummy ache. He skipped lunch at school and ate little dinner that night. The next day he had diarrhea. His mom rushed him to the doctor, who confirmed that Robbie had a mild case of the stomach flu or gastroenteritis.

Gastroenteritis in children is not uncommon. And it can be treated at home if it is in the initial stages. MomJunction tells everything you need to know about stomach flu, its symptoms, causes and treatment options.

As a bonus, we have also added a few home remedies that you can try to fight the infection.

What Is Gastroenteritis?

Gastroenteritis, commonly known as stomach flu, is the infection of the gastrointestinal tract. The infection can result in severe diarrhea, which is known to cause half-a-million deaths in children under the age of five around the world annually (1). The infection leads to inflammation of the GI tract, which also includes the small intestine and the stomach. The infection can be viral, bacterial or parasitic, which means it is contagious.

[ Read: Bacterial Infection In Children ]

In most cases, home care with basic medication might work. But when the infection is severe, the child may have to be hospitalized. Once it affects, gastroenteritis can last from one to ten days.

You can catch the stomach flu more than once in the same season because different viruses or bacteria cause the infection. Children are more prone to viral gastroenteritis, which they contract by coming into contact with other infected people, things, and spaces.

Children in developing countries and those with poor nutrition are at a higher risk.

Symptoms Of Stomach Flu In Kids

Children with the stomach flu can show some or all of the symptoms mentioned below.

  • Watery diarrhea or loose motions
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Tummy ache or abdominal cramps
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fever

In some cases, the child may also have a headache and muscle pain. Symptoms show up 12-48 hours after the child has contracted the virus. You must call the doctor immediately if your child is severely dehydrated, as that may warrant rehydration through IV fluids.

[ Read: Abdominal Pain In Children ]

Causes of Gastroenteritis In Kids

Gastroenteritis is an infection that is caused due to viruses, bacteria or parasites. These disease-causing elements spread from one person to another through touch or ingestion.

  1. Viruses like rotavirus, which are highly contagious and can be contracted from children at school, or by touching objects that have been contaminated by the virus.
  1. Bacteria such as E. coli, salmonella, and campylobacter, which the child can contract by eating contaminated food.
  1. Bacteria acquired from infected dogs and cats.
  1. Bacteria contracted by eating contaminated food, drinking contaminated water, and traveling in developing countries.
  1. Parasitic infection acquired by eating shellfish.

Not washing hands before eating food, and touching the face or areas around the mouth are the most common reasons why children get the infection.

Diagnosing Gastroenteritis In Children

The symptoms, especially watery diarrhea and vomiting that last for three days or more, are a clear indicator of gastroenteritis. However, to be sure, your doctor may ask you a few questions about the foods, the environment you live in, and things that the child has been exposed to. If need be, the doctor may also suggest a few basic laboratory tests of the blood and stool samples.

The doctor will also check for the pulse rate, temperature and the tenderness of the tummy.

[ Read: Signs Of Dehydration In Children ]

Stomach Flu Treatment In Kids

Dehydration is the most common and dangerous complication that can arise out of gastroenteritis. The primary treatment for stomach flu involves hydrating the child and controlling his diet to prevent the bacteria from thriving. Medication is not usually required to treat stomach flu in children aged less than 12, but in some cases, doctors may recommend paracetamol or ibuprofen to alleviate the pain.

The doctor may also prescribe anti-diarrheal medication like loperamide or racecadotril that hardens the stool and prevents loose motions. In the case of severe gastroenteritis, hospitalization may become necessary.

Home Remedies For Gastroenteritis

Home care is, usually, all you need to nurse a child with gastroenteritis back to health. Here are a few home remedies that you can follow:

1. Keep the child hydrated

The biggest complication of gastroenteritis is dehydration. Because of frequent watery stools and vomiting, the child would lose a lot of water. This will make him weak, tired and lethargic. So, it is important to increase the fluid intake to prevent dehydration.

Make sure the child drinks a lot of water, electrolyte water, or glucose water. That will help in replacing the lost salts and minerals in the body, giving him the needed energy. Avoid fizzy drinks and sugary juices.

2. Supplement

Zinc supplementation in children with diarrhea in developing countries leads to reduced duration and severity of diarrhea and could potentially prevent a large proportion of cases from recurring. Zinc administration for diarrhea management can significantly reduce all-cause mortality by 46% and hospital admission by 23%.

3. Rest

Stomach flu can leave your child exhausted. Loss of body fluids will make the kid weak and tired, and even the slightest activity can be excruciating. Do not send the child to school or play when he has the stomach flu. Let him get as much rest as possible while giving him fluids often.

4. Switching to normal diet

For the first two-three days, give your child plenty of liquids, with just a little solid food. Once the vomiting and diarrhea cease, you can introduce regular diet. Gastroenteritis can ruin the child’s appetite, so getting him to eat something can be challenging. That said, don’t force feed him.

Introduce normal diet slowly and in small quantities and increase it eventually. Include meals that include a lot of vegetables and fruits. Avoid too much fiber as that can loosen the bowel movement, and worsen diarrhea. Also, avoid other fatty foods that can have a negative impact.

5. What to feed a child with stomach flu

Ideally, kids with flu are recommended the BRAT diet – bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast, which are easy to digest. Make sure that the rice and bread you choose are white and not wheat or brown, for they contain high amounts of fiber which should be avoided when you have an upset tummy. Besides fiber-rich food, you should also avoid dairy, spicy and oily foods, which are difficult to digest.

[ Read: Foods For Constipation In Kids ]

Herbal Remedies For Gastroenteritis

Besides rest and diet, give your child a few homemade herbal concoctions. Here are some tried and tested herbal recipes that can alleviate the symptoms of gastroenteritis and minimize the chances of complications.

1. Basil

Basil’s antispasmodic properties prevent any gastric spasms and make the stomach stronger.

  • To ease tummy ache, get the child to drink a mix of basil and ginger juice twice or thrice a day. Mix equal amounts of ginger and basil juice and add a little honey to improve the taste.
  • Boil a handful of basil leaves in water. Strain the water and add a pinch of rock salt to it. Give it to the kid twice a day for a few days.
  • You can also give the child basil tea (green tea) with honey.

2. Apple cider vinegar

One of the many things that apple cider vinegar can be used for is treating stomach flu. It helps in cleansing the tummy of any harmful toxins and promotes speedy recovery from stomach flu.

  • In a cup of warm water, add one teaspoon of apple cider vinegar and give it to the child to consume half an hour before eating food.
  • You can also add one teaspoon of apple cider vinegar in a glass of grape juice and give it to the kid twice a day.

3. Baking soda

A natural antacid, baking soda can be used to treat gastroenteritis in kids as well as adults. It helps alleviate vomiting and diarrhea.

  • Mix ½ teaspoon of baking soda with one quart of water, four tablespoons of sugar and ½ teaspoon of water.
  • Give it to the kid twice or thrice a day.

4. Salt

Salt contains sodium that can help prevent dehydration by quickly replacing body water lost due to diarrhea and vomiting. It will also contribute to maintaining the pH levels of the digestive tract.

  • Add one teaspoon salt and four teaspoons sugar to one-liter water and mix well. This solution works like the electrolyte water you buy outside.
  • Give this drink to the child at frequent intervals to prevent dehydration.

5. Yogurt

Yogurt has good bacteria or probiotics, which are good for the digestive system and to alleviate diarrhea. Kids are likely to prefer this remedy to most other remedies because yogurt is tastier.

6. Chamomile tea

Chamomile can relax the nerves and also help you sleep. It also has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties which can relieve the child of diarrhea and nausea. Give the child a cup of chamomile tea twice every day. You can add honey to the tea for taste. Make sure that you get caffeine-free green tea.

7. Cinnamon

Cinnamon mixed with honey has been a remedy for gastroenteritis for ages, but it is not scientifically backed. However, honey and cinnamon together can minimize inflammation caused by gastroenteritis.

8. Bananas

Your child may not go bananas about fruit, but bananas can make his stomach flu less painful. They have a starchy substance that helps in reducing the symptoms and also supply magnesium and potassium, the two electrolytes that the body needs to prevent dehydration.

9. Turmeric

Turmeric has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties and contains bioflavonoids, minerals, and vitamins that make it an excellent ingredient for a tonic to treat stomach flu.

You can add half a teaspoon of turmeric to a glass of water and give it to the child to drink. You can also add turmeric to the food that the kid eats.

10. Peppermint

Peppermint also has antispasmodic properties and helps relieve gas, bloating and upset stomach. Here is how you can make peppermint tea for your child.

  • Add one teaspoon of peppermint leaves (dried) to a cup of boiling water.
  • Cover it and let it sit for a few minutes.
  • Strain and give it to the child to drink.

Give your child this to drink at least twice a day before meals, for a few days until the condition gets better.

You can also try home remedies that involve asafoetida and ginger, but they are not usually given to children because of their strong concentration. However, you may add these ingredients to the food that you give to the kid to ease the symptoms.

Once your child is cured of stomach flu, you need to take enough care to ensure that the problem doesn’t recur.

[ Read: Healthy Eating Habits In Kids ]

Preventing Gastroenteritis

The only way to prevent gastroenteritis is to avoid contracting the bacteria. So make sure that your kids:

  • Wash their hands thoroughly before they eat food or even touch it.
  • Wash their hands after playing outside.
  • Do not eat street food or any other food that is at a risk of being contaminated.
  • Drink a lot of water to prevent dehydration.
  • Do not mix cold foods with hot foods.
  • Do not give them stale food.
  • Avoid using over-the-counter medicines.
  • Avoid dairy, because that makes diarrhea worse.

Prevention is always the option when it comes to gastroenteritis. Hygiene, combined with healthy dietary habits, can help keep stomach flu at bay. Also, you need to give your child a diet that includes foods for strengthening the immune system. A strong immune system helps fight the infection faster and minimizes the risks.

What do you do when your child has stomach flu? Share your ideas here.

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Dr. Mansur Nasirov

Dr. Mansur Nasirov is an assistant attending physician at Tashkent Pediatric Medical Institute and is a pediatric surgeon at the National Children’s Medical Center, Uzbekistan. He did his fellowship in pediatric surgery from the Seoul National University and Clinical fellowship in Pediatric and Neonatal Minimally Invasive Surgery from the Samsung Medical Center.

Dr Bisny T. Joseph

Dr. Bisny T. Joseph is a Georgian Board-certified physician. She has completed her professional graduate degree as a medical doctor from Tbilisi State Medical University, Georgia. She has 3+ years of experience in various sectors of medical affairs as a physician, medical reviewer, medical writer, health coach, and Q&A expert. Her interest in digital medical education and patient education made... more