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Viral Gastroenteritis in Children

Viral gastroenteritis is often called “stomach flu.” But it is not really related to the flu or influenza. It is irritation of the stomach and intestines due to infection with a virus. Most children with viral gastroenteritis get better in a few days without a doctor’s treatment. Because a child with gastroenteritis may have trouble keeping fluids down, he or she is at risk for dehydration and should be watched closely.

Young girl washing her hands at a bathroom sink
Handwashing is the best way to prevent the spread of viruses that cause "stomach flu."

Symptoms of Viral Gastroenteritis

Symptoms of gastroenteritis include diarrhea (loose, watery stools) sometimes with nausea and vomiting. The child may have cramps or pain in the stomach area. A fever or headache may also be present. Symptoms usually last for about 2 days, but may take as long as 7 days to go away.

How Is Viral Gastroenteritis Transmitted?

Viral gastroenteritis is highly contagious. The viruses that cause the infection are often passed from person to person by unwashed hands. Children can get the viruses from food, eating utensils, or toys. People who have had the infection can be contagious even after they feel better. And some people are infected but never have symptoms. Because of this, outbreaks of gastroenteritis are common in childcare and other group settings.

Treatment

Most cases of viral gastroenteritis get better without treatment. (Antibiotics are NOT helpful against viral infections.) The goal of treatment is to make the child comfortable and to prevent dehydration. These tips can help:

  • Be sure the child gets plenty of rest.

  • To prevent dehydration:

    • Give your child plenty of liquids such as water, fluids with electrolytes, or diluted juice. You can also give your child an oral rehydration solution, which you can buy at the grocery store or drugstore. Ask your child's health care provider which types of solutions are best for your child. Have your child take small sips of fluid at first to avoid nausea.

  • When your child is able to eat again:

    • Feed regular foods. Returning to a regular diet quickly has been shown to reduce the length of symptoms of gastroenteritis.

    • Ask your child’s health care provider whether there are any foods that should be avoided while your child is recovering from gastroenteritis.

Preventing Viral Gastroenteritis

These steps may help lessen the chances that you or your child will get or pass on viral gastroenteritis:

  • Wash your hands with warm water and soap often, especially after going to the bathroom, diapering your child, and before preparing, serving, or eating food.

  • Have your child wash his or her hands frequently.

  • Keep food preparation areas clean.

  • Wash soiled clothing promptly.

  • Use diapers with waterproof outer covers or use plastic pants.

  • Prevent contact between the child and those who are sick.

  • Keep your sick child home from school or childcare.

  • Ask your child’s health care provider whether your child should receive the rotavirus vaccine. This vaccine protects infants and young children against rotavirus infection, one cause of viral gastroenteritis.

Get Medical Help Right Away If the Child:

  • Is an infant under 3 months old with a rectal temperature of 100.4°F (38.0°C) or higher

  • In a child of any age who has a repeated temperature of 104°F (40°C) or higher

  • Has a fever that lasts more than 24-hours in a child under 2 years old, or for 3 days in a child 2 years or older

  • Has had a seizure caused by the fever

  • Has been vomiting and having diarrhea for more than 6 hours.

  • Has blood in vomit or bloody diarrhea.

  • Is lethargic.

  • Has severe stomach pain.

  • Can’t keep even small amounts of liquid down.

  • Shows signs of dehydration, such as very dark or very little urine, excessive thirst, dry mouth, or dizziness.

Online Medical Reviewer: MMI board-certified, academically-affiliated clinician
Online Medical Reviewer: Pierce-Smith, Daphne, RN, MSN, CCRC
Last Review Date: 9/13/2014
© 2000-2014 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.