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Stomach flu in children: How to help your tot

Stomach flu is common among children and can cause your little one to suffer diarrhoea, vomiting and a fever.

Is your child experiencing stomach pains, as well as diarrhoea and vomiting? He or she could be suffering from gastroenteritis, or stomach flu. This ailment, while unpleasant, is usually not dangerous and will go away on its own within 10 days.

“Viruses like norovirus and rotavirus are the most prevalent causes of gastroenteritis, but bacteria like salmonella, E. coli, shigella, and staphylococcus can also cause illness,” explains medical practitioner Dr Yair Edinburg of the Ubuntu Family Health Centre in Johannesburg.

Signs your child may have stomach flu

The most common signs of stomach flu in children include:

  • Diarrhoea
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fever
  • Bloodied diarrhoea
  • Either increased or low or no urine output
  • Weight loss

Stomach flu versus food poisoning

Dr Edinburg explains the main difference between stomach flu and food poisoning is that food poisoning is usually dramatic. “It often affects a group of people who may have eaten the same foods, there is a rapid onset of symptoms and the cause is usually bacterial. With stomach flu, there will be reports of the condition in the community.”

How to treat your child’s stomach flu at home

Ensure your little one takes in enough fluids so she doesn’t become dehydrated. Dr Edinburg recommends only giving your little one clear fluids as milk can worsen symptoms. You can also make your own homemade oral rehydration solution. Mix six level teaspoons of sugar and half a teaspoon of salt with one litre of clean drinking or boiled water. Let the solution cool down before giving it to your child. If your child is unable to keep any fluids in, try syringing 2 to 5ml of the fluid in until larger volumes can be tolerated.

If your child continues to refuse fluids or vomits, call your doctor immediately. While you can offer your little one plain foods like bananas, rice, apple sauce, and toast to keep up her strength, oral rehydration should always be the priority when a child has stomach flu. It’s vital to replace the important electrolytes (salts, sugars, and minerals) your child’s body loses when she is dehydrated. Avoid foods that are spicy, fried, and fatty, or have a lot of acid as they can make your little one’s stomach problems worse. It’s best to wait until your child can tolerate fluids before introducing food.

Can stomach flu be prevented?

Following good general hygiene may help prevent your exposure to the causes of a stomach bug. However, as stomach flu is extremely contagious and spreads through personal contact, it can prove difficult to avoid being exposed to a stomach bug. Stomach flu is generally spread by faeco-oral route, parents should take great care when changing nappies. Hand-washing for the entire family should be a priority after using the toilet, changing nappies, and cleaning up diarrhoea or vomit.

A word on dehydration

If your child has the stomach flu, it’s important that you look for signs that they could be dehydrated. Symptoms should be monitored closely and treated as soon as possible should they develop. Common symptoms of dehydration in children include:

  • Decreased or no urine input
  • Dry mucous membranes
  • Dry mouth or skin
  • No tears
  • Weakness
  • Light-headedness
  • Low blood pressure
  • Pinched skin that doesn’t rapidly go back to normal.

When to seek medical help

If gastroenteritis symptoms last more than about five days, your child has a high fever above 38.5°C, has bloody diarrhoea, is dehydrated, and complaining of constant abdominal pain, make an appointment with your doctor as these symptoms may indicate a more severe underlying disease.  

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