Surviving a Stomach Bug

Folded Baby Laundry Kids' Health with Sarah

Can’t even. Piles of folded baby laundry after countless loads run in the wake of my daughter’s stomach bug.

The last four days have been miserable. It is no surprise that my 11 month old, who is constantly putting things in her mouth, crawling around in public spaces, and going to daycare full-time, came down with a stomach bug. She is absolutely beside herself with a crampy belly, low-grade fever, vomiting, and diarrhea. I am beside myself trying to keep her happy, disinfect, clean-up, and run laundry. Ugh. The medical term for her condition: gastroenteritis.

You may have heard gastroenteritis more commonly called “stomach flu.” Personally, I’d like to go on a campaign to remove the term from colloquial language. Calling a stomach bug a “flu” is confusing and a misnomer. Gastroenteritis is not flu. The only illness that is flu is influenza.

The term gastroenteritis is self-explanatory when you break it down: gastro (stomach) – entero (intestine/gut) – itis (inflammation). Simply put, my kid’s stomach and intestines are inflamed. With inflammation it is more difficult for her digestive system to properly break down foods. This leads to her experience of belly discomfort, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Gastrointestinal inflammation can be due to a virus, bacteria, or parasite. Most cases of gastroenteritis in little kids are viral. Viral stomach bugs are spread from person to person through the fecal-oral route (gross!).  This typically means poor hand washing after using the restroom or changing a baby’s diaper and then going on to prepare food for, or interact with, other people.  If your child has diarrhea three or more times in a day, with or without belly pain, fever, or vomiting, he or she may have viral gastroenteritis.

What next?

Medication? Unfortunately, there is no role for medication in the treatment of viral gastroenteritis. Antibiotics are not effective (they only treat bacteria, not viruses); medicines that decrease the frequency of diarrhea, such as Imodium (loperamide), are NOT recommended as they may delay a child’s recovery.

Fluids? This is the most important treatment for a tummy bug! Keeping your child hydrated will keep your child out of the hospital.

For babies, breast milk and formula are ideal.  Oral rehydration solutions (such as Pedialyte) are also an option.  Ask your healthcare provider what would be best for your specific circumstance.

All other ages should stick exclusively to oral rehydration solutions.  These work best because they replace lost sugars and salts in near perfect proportions.  Water lacks electrolytes and sports drinks have too much sugar (which can make diarrhea worse!) and not enough salt.

Unfortunately, oral rehydration solutions tend to have an off-putting taste. My daughter loves the orange Pedialyte flavor but my son won’t even give it a chance.  Some of my older patients like the taste and flavor of DripDrop oral rehydration packets.  Personally, I’m not convinced it tastes much better, but the packaging is cool and looks less juvenile which can make a difference to adolescents.

If your child scrunches up his or her nose at the taste of oral rehydration solution, any fluids are better than no fluids.  Consider water, popsicles, watered down juices, or sports drinks.  Sodas should be avoided all together.

Kiddo can’t drink without vomiting? Try small, frequent servings; a teaspoon or two of liquid every few minutes until your child can comfortably tolerate larger amounts. This is much gentler than drinking several ounces at once. Always wait 15 minutes after an episode of vomiting before offering fluids to avoid triggering more nausea.

Food? Drinking is more important than eating when your child is sick.  This is especially true during the most severe stages of gastroenteritis. If your child is hungry and able to tolerate food, try fruits, vegetables, toast, and lean meats.  Serve everything in a bland and simple manner without spices or heavy sauces.  Avoid serving foods that are fried, greasy, high fat, or that contain a lot of sugar. This will only make your child’s symptoms worse.

How do I keep the rest of my family from getting sick? Wash. Your. Hands. Wash your kid’s hands. Have your visitors wash their hands. Use gel sanitizer such as Purell, especially before eating. Clean and disinfect anything that comes into contact with diarrhea or vomit. Then, cross your fingers and pray! Honestly, sometimes you can do everything right and the whole family still gets sick. Tummy bugs are highly prevalent because they are super contagious.

When will my child get better?  Hopefully in a few days, although it can take up to a week for a kid’s digestive system to fully recover.

When do I call my healthcare provider?

-If your baby is younger than 6 months you should see your healthcare provider immediately. Little babies can become dehydrated very quickly and need close monitoring when they are sick

-Fever over 102

-Severe abdominal pain

-Severe, unrelenting diarrhea and vomiting

-Blood in the vomit or diarrhea

-Any concern that your child has become dehydrated. Late signs of dehydration include no tears when crying, dry lips, and dry mouth.

-Refusal to drink, or inability to drink without vomiting, for several hours

-Dry diaper after 4 hours in a baby, no urge to pee for 6 hours in an older child

-Vomiting or diarrhea that lasts longer than a few days

-Your child is unusually sleepy, no longer playful, or simply not acting themselves

More questions? Talk to your healthcare provider! Many medical offices have on-call phone lines that are staffed by a healthcare provider 24/7.

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Surviving a Stomach Bug by Sarah Kiser, CPNP-PC is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

About sarahkiser

Pediatric nurse practitioner, writer, mother of two.

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