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What to Do When Your Child Has the Stomach Flu

Megan Horst-hatch
Jan. 17, 2013

Learn the symptoms of the stomach bug and how to help a sick child.

Your child wakes up with vomiting or diarrhea and maybe even a high fever. Not sure what to do? It sounds like your little one may have the symptoms of the stomach bug. But what can parents or nannies do to comfort a child and help them heal?

Read on for insight and tips from the experts.

Understanding the Stomach Flu

  • What is a stomach bug? According to Dr. Gregory DeMuri, a pediatrician from American Family Children's Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin, the stomach flu, or a stomach bug, is a "lay term for a whole group of microorganisms that cause gastroenteritis." When a child has a stomach bug, they usually have symptoms like vomiting or diarrhea and may also have a fever and be dehydrated.

  • What causes it? There are hundreds of causes of the stomach flu. It can be caused by rotavirus, which can be spread via contaminated toys, hands, food or water; or the norovirus, which can be transmitted through contaminated food, touching surfaces contaminated with the virus or having contact with someone who has norovirus. "About 90 percent of stomach bugs are caused by those viruses," Dr. DeMuri says. Both can cause dehydration, especially in infants and young children. Salmonella and E. coli, which can be transmitted by consuming contaminated food or water or eating undercooked food, are bacteria that can also cause stomach bugs.

  • When should you call the doctor? All medical practices have different thresholds as to when you should call, but Dr. DeMuri advises parents to call their pediatrician if the child has blood or mucus in their stools, has a high fever or seems dehydrated."If your child seems withdrawn or just out of it, then call your doctor," he says. Consult with your child's pediatrician ahead of time about when you should bring your child to the office and when to call in case of a fever.

  • What are the signs of dehydration? Dr. DeMuri says that if a child hasn't urinated for 12 hours, it may be a sign of dehydration. For babies and toddlers, keep track of how long your child has had a dry diaper.

Caring for a Child with the Stomach Bug

  • Administer fluids to stay hydrated: Dr. Jason Terk, a senior consultant with Cook Children's Physician Network based in Keller, Texas, says "parents should maintain hydration with a sick child." Have a sick child drink liquids that can replace fluids, nutrients and salt lost due to diarrhea and vomiting. Dr. DeMuri recommended having Pedialyte on hand for small children and Gatorade for older children. Dr. Terk also advised against using Popsicles, applesauce and fruit juice because they can make diarrhea worse. Instead, give children yogurt without fruit juice.

  • Enforce a rest policy: If your child is sick with a stomach bug, have them rest quietly. Let them watch a favorite movie or play with toys.

  • Set aside "sick toys": Once your child feels better, you don't want them to relapse because they played with the same germ-covered toys as when they were sick. You're your child select a few items to have fun with when they're under the weather, and keep them separate from the rest of the toy box. Clean the toys off regularly to stop the spread of viruses.

  • Stay home: If your child attends daycare or school, keep them at home so they can recover, especially if they have a fever. Stomach bugs can spread easily through communities such as daycare centers, so keeping your child home when they are ill also limits spreading the sickness to others.

  • Avoid OTC medicines: Dr. DeMuri and Dr. Terk both advise against using over-the-counter medication to stop diarrhea, noting that such treatment can actually make the symptom worse. In addition, if your child is an infant, ensure he or she is up-to-date with the rotavirus vaccine.

To prevent spreading stomach bug germs, be diligent about hand-washing for your child and yourself, especially after using the bathroom or changing diapers. If possible, teach your child to cough into their elbow, not hand, to reduce the risk of transmission.

With diligent health practices and a fridge stocked with the appropriate re-hydrating beverages, your child -- and you -- can weather the stomach bug when it comes to your home.

Megan Horst-Hatch is a mother, runner, baker, gardener, knitter, and other words that end in "-er." She loves nothing more than a great cupcake and writes at I'm a Trader Joe's Fan. Her work can be found here.

* This article is for general informational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be providing medical advice and is not a substitute for such advice. The reader should always consult a health care provider concerning any medical condition or treatment plan.  Neither Care.com nor the author assumes any responsibility or liability with respect to use of any information contained herein.

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