Stomach Flu In Toddlers: Causes, Symptoms And Home Remedies

Stomach Flu

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The stomach flu is one of the most serious health problems that affect babies and toddlers. Also called gastroenteritis, stomach flu can be caused by several factors, but the common flu virus is not one of them (1).

Keep reading this MomJunction post to know all about stomach flu in toddlers, its causes, and ways to manage the disease right at home.

What Is Stomach Flu In Toddlers?

Stomach flu is an infection that affects parts of the gastrointestinal tract (2). Commonly referred to as the ‘stomach bug,’ the infection develops when pathogens attack the gastrointestinal tract and cause widespread inflammation of the digestive system, making it dysfunctional.

The infection can affect any part of the digestive system –from the stomach to the large intestine. A slew of bacteria and viruses cause this infection in babies.

[ Read: Reasons For Stomach Pain In Toddlers ]

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What Causes Stomach Flu In Toddlers?

The following are the most common pathogens to cause gastroenteritis in toddlers (3):

1. Viruses

  • Rotavirus
  • Norovirus
  • Sapovirus
  • Adenovirus
  • Astrovirus
  • Enterovirus

2. Bacteria

  • Salmonella
  • Staphylococcus
  • Campylobacter jejuni
  • Escherichia coli
  • Shigella
  • Yersinia enterocolitica
  • Vibrio cholerae

3. Protozoans and parasites

  • Giardia lamblia
  • Entamoeba histolytica
  • Cryptosporidium
  • Strongyloides stercoralis

Viruses alone contribute to about 75-90% of stomach flu cases among toddlers (4). Rotavirus is the leading cause of gastroenteritis in the world while norovirus is the most common reason for gastroenteritis in the US (5). Parasites account for less than 5% of the cases.

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How Do Toddlers Catch The Stomach Flu?

The primary source of the stomach flu pathogens is contaminated food and water. Since toddlers eat a variety of food, they can be more at risk of infection than infants who are exclusively breastfed. Pathogens usually take the fecal-oral route when food and water come in contact with infected feces.

Contaminated objects such as the baby’s toys, toilet seat or potty chair can carry the flu-causing viruses that thrive easily on the surfaces for days together. If someone in the family has gastroenteritis, then they can transmit the disease to the baby by touching the baby’s things without washing their hands properly.

Babies who contract the virus or pathogen will start showing symptoms of the condition soon.

[ Read: How To Stop Vomiting In Toddlers ]

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What Are The Symptoms Of Stomach Flu In Toddlers?

The symptoms of stomach flu can take a day or two develop (6). A toddler with stomach flu will display the following symptoms of the condition (7):

  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Stomach cramps
  • Poor appetite
  • Fever
  • Irritability and fussiness with a headache

Diarrhea and vomiting are among the first symptoms to suggest something is wrong with the toddler’s gastrointestinal tract. Stomach flu can be risky, and for this reason, you must take the toddler to the doctor for a diagnosis and treatment.

How Is Stomach Flu Diagnosed?

Here’s how a pediatrician will diagnose stomach flu in toddlers:

  1. Symptomatic diagnosis: In most cases, the doctor can identify the condition by assessing the symptoms. If the details of the symptoms are insufficient or inconclusive, then the doctor will proceed to other diagnostic methods.
  1. Stool test: Stool test helps determine the precise cause of gastroenteritis. A sample of stool is collected for laboratory analysis to identify the pathogen causing the infection.
  1. Blood test: Blood tests determine the presence of pathogens in the blood and also the antibodies produced by the immune system.

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What Is The Treatment For Stomach Flu In Toddlers?

The treatment depends on the fundamental cause of stomach flu. The following medications help cure the infection:

  • Antibiotics: If bacteria are the cause of the infection, then the doctor will prescribe antibiotics.
  • Anti-parasitic medication: These medicines work against parasites and protozoans.
  • Analgesic medicines: They help subdue the pain and discomfort caused by gastroenteritis. Analgesics also work in reducing the fever.
  • Rehydration salts: They help restore the essential salts lost by the body through diarrhea.

Usually, rehydration salts are the only remedy suggested for gastroenteritis. Medical experts state that the only treatment your child will probably need is bed rest and plenty of fluids. Read more about how to care for the baby at home.

[ Read: Causes Of Diarrhea In Toddlers ]

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Home Remedies For Stomach Flu In Toddlers

Homecare plays a significant role in ensuring a speedy recovery of the toddler. Here is what you should do to nurse your baby back to health (8):

Provide plenty of fluids:

  • Give your toddler small sips of liquids throughout the day. Do not let the child drink it all at once, as that can make them throw up.
  • Babies who only breastfeed can have an extra feed of milk.
  • Toddlers can have plain water as well as oral electrolyte solutions, also called oral rehydration salts (ORS), such as Pedialyte. Toddlers can be breastfed too.
  • The amount of ORS you need to give your toddler depends on their weight. The World Health Organization (WHO) suggests that you multiply the toddler’s weight in kilograms with 75 to arrive at the volume of ORS you need in milliliters (9). Give the recommended amount of ORS over the first four hours. You can give more later if the child is still dehydrated.
  • You can give the baby formula or breast milk, but avoid animal milk since the baby’s tummy can have problems digesting it (10).

Rest is vital:

  • Make sure your little one rests a lot. Bed rest gives the body time to fight infection.
  • Avoid sending the toddler out to play or indulge in high-intensity games and activities.
  • Good sleep is also essential for a speedy recovery.

Home care alone can help your toddler feel better in a few days. Vomiting usually goes away in a couple of days, but diarrhea can persist for a couple of weeks (11). The infection is entirely gone by the end of two weeks.

Continue with home care for an extended duration to replenish the fluids and calories lost by the baby. Proper home care also involves giving the right food to the baby.

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What To Feed A Toddler With Stomach Flu?

You can safely feed the following food items to your toddler with stomach flu:

  • Bananas can help control loose stools and are often recommended for children with stomach flu. Mash the banana and give small bites whenever your little one feels hungry.
  • Applesauce is also light on the stomach and ensures your baby gets all the nutrition that the fruit has to offer.
  • Broth is great since it is mostly liquid. You can prepare a chicken or vegetable broth for your baby to replenish the essential micronutrients that are lost due to diarrhea and vomiting.
  • Oats and rice are mild on the stomach and are easier to digest. You can mash boiled rice and give it to the toddler. Oats are rich in fiber and free of gluten. They keep your little one’s tummy full for longer.
  • Crackers and toast make an excellent snack for toddlers with gastroenteritis. You can give them between meals.
  • Yogurt is a probiotic and is often recommended for adults with stomach flu. The good thing about it is that you can give it your child too. You can introduce yogurt at the age of nine months. Start with small quantities and slowly make it a part of the baby’s meals. Do note you can give cow’s milk to a child only after the age of 12 months (12).
  • Breast milk: Breast milk is the safest food for your baby or toddler since there is no specific time to stop breastfeeding. Breast milk contains fluids and electrolytes that can help the baby feel better and replenish the salts lost through diarrhea (13). Experts also note that there are fewer cases of gastroenteritis among infants who are breastfed than those who are bottle fed.

Feed your baby or toddler only when they are receptive to food. Feed them small portions over a few intervals but do not force-feed them. Excess feeding can induce vomiting and make the condition worse. Treatment, along with home care, is essential to halt the progress of stomach flu and prevent complications.

[ Read: What Causes Loss Of Appetite In Toddlers ]

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What Are The Complications Of Stomach Flu Among Toddlers?

Untreated gastroenteritis can lead to the following complications in babies and toddlers:

  • Dehydration is the most significant risk of gastroenteritis. Excess loss of fluids from the body can cause severe electrolyte imbalance, which can impact various organs of the body.
  • Loose stools and vomiting prevent the toddler from eating as much as they should which can eventually lead to malnutrition. Malnutrition has a direct impact on the baby’s growth and ability to achieve developmental milestones.
  • If the stomach flu extends for long, then the baby runs the risk of developing irritable bowel syndrome, which is a permanent condition causing repeated irritation of the gastrointestinal tract.
  • Gastroenteritis can damage the internal mucosal lining of the small intestine and impede its ability to produce the lactase hormone (14). It means the baby will have trouble digesting breast milk and dairy products. Such lactose intolerance is called secondary lactose intolerance and is mostly temporary, but may last for a long time.
  • Sometimes the pathogen can find its way to other parts of the body and cause secondary infections. For instance, the adenovirus is capable of infecting both the digestive and respiratory systems. The virus can also reach the respiratory tract and cause a widespread infection.
  • Certain pathogens such as the E. coli can induce a low platelet count and deplete the body’s iron reserves quickly. Such a condition is called hemolytic uremic syndrome. Although it is rare, there is still a risk of this complication in babies.

Complications of stomach flu seldom happen if you take care of your toddler. With a few precautions, you can even prevent the condition.

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How To Prevent Stomach Flu In Toddlers?

Preventing stomach flu in babies and toddlers is easier than you think. Here are the steps to follow:

  • Vaccination: Get the baby the rotavirus vaccine, which is available at private and government dispensaries. Speak to your baby’s pediatrician about it. Immunization can significantly minimize the risk of contracting the stomach flu caused by rotavirus (15).
  • Provide well-prepared, clean food and clean water: Always give home-cooked meals to your older infants and toddlers. It prevents exposure to pathogens that can cause stomach flu. Also, make sure that the water your toddler drinks is boiled and cooled.
  • Maintain personal hygiene: Washing the toddler’s hands before eating and after using the toilet can prevent the infection. Young infants may not use their hands to eat but tend to put their hands or objects in their mouth. So keep their hands clean and disinfect the baby’s things regularly using a baby-safe soap and warm water.
  • Good hygiene across the house: Your child may unknowingly catch the infection from another family member. Ensuring that all the members of the house adhere to hygienic practices can protect the baby from the infection. Parents should ideally wear gloves when handling the baby’s potty and then wash hands. You must wash hands every time you change the baby’s diaper to prevent the spreading of the infection accidentally.

[ Read: How To Treat Dehydration In Toddlers ]

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Gastroenteritis in babies and toddlers can cause painful symptoms and complications. However, in most cases, home care is all your baby will need to recover and stay healthy. Do remember to get the necessary vaccinations for the child and ensure proper hygiene to keep infections away.

References:

1. Symptoms & Causes of Viral Gastroenteritis (“Stach Flu”); NIH(2008)
2. W. J. Cochran; Gastroenteritis in Children; Merck Manuals
3. E.J.Elliott; Acute gastroenteritis in children; NCBI(2007)
4. C.A.Churgay, Z.Aftab; Gastroenteritis in Children: Part I. Diagnosis; American Academy of Family Physicians(2012)
5. Norovirus; Baylor College of Medicine
6. Kids and the Stomach Flu; CHOC Children’s
7. Dr. C.Tidy; Gastroenteritis in Children; Patient
8. How to Prevent the Stomach Flu; The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia(2016)
9. Integrated Management of Childhood Illness; WHO (2014)
10. When to take a vomiting child to the doctor;University of Utah
11. What’s normal when your kid has a stomach bug; University of Utah
12. Baby’s food basics; University of Utah
13. Vomiting and Diarrhea; American Academy of Family Physicians
14. D.L.Swagerty, A.D.Walling, R.M.Klein; Lactose Intolerance; American Academy of Family Physicians(2002)
15. Rotavirus VIS; U.S. Department of Health & Human Services

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Rohit Garoo

Rohit Garoo took writing as a profession right after finishing his MBA in Marketing. Earlier he graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Botany & Zoology from the autonomous St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai. Rohit has also done a Stanford University certification course on breastfeeding. This botanist-zoologist turned writer excels at life sciences, and at MomJunction he writes everything about pediatrics and maternal care. In between writing and being overly curious, he spends time cooking, reading, and playing video games. LinkedIn profile – linkedin.com/in/rohit-garoo-263115aa
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