The stomach flu, also called viral gastroenteritis, is not to be confused with the flu caused by the influenza virus. The stomach flu is caused by viruses, such as norovirus and rotavirus, that irritate and infect the digestive system. It can be a common illness among kids, who may not be as good at washing their hands as adults and spend more time touching the same objects as other kids.
Unfortunately for little ones, the stomach flu can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Isabel Rojas, M.D., a pediatric gastroenterologist at Children's Health℠ and Assistant Professor at UT Southwestern, shares the best remedies for stomach flu in kids and ways to help settle your child's stomach.
How do you treat a child's stomach virus?
The best ways to treat the stomach flu in kids are hydration and rest. "For hydration, use a rehydration solution that's available in any store and over the counter," says Dr. Rojas. "Start with small sips and increase gradually, so they don't vomit it up."
Water alone may not be enough to rehydrate kids safely, especially younger children. Kids lose electrolytes when they vomit or have diarrhea. This can lead to low sodium in the blood, a dangerous situation. A rehydration solution, like Pedialyte, replenishes fluids and electrolytes. Broth can also be helpful.
You can also make a rehydration solution at home by combining 4 ¼ cups of water, 6 teaspoons of sugar and a ½ teaspoon of salt.
Dr. Rojas also recommends lots of rest for children. Rest can help the digestive system settle and heal.
Does medicine help the stomach flu?
Though you may want to give your child a medicine to help with stomach flu symptoms, Dr. Rojas recommends against it. Because the stomach flu is caused by a virus, antibiotics will not help.
"Usually we just need to let the virus run its own course," says Dr. Rojas. "Trying to take medications can prolong symptoms and make them worse."
Dr. Rojas says the only exception to the no-medicine rule is the appropriate dose of acetaminophen if your child has a fever.
What do you feed a child with the stomach flu?
Once your child has stopped vomiting, they can start to eat foods again. The best foods after the stomach flu are the BRAT diet of bananas, rice, applesauce and toast.
"These foods are very easy to digest," says Dr. Rojas. "Children can also have crackers, or grilled or boiled chicken."
Children should avoid greasy, heavy or spicy foods for a few days after they experience vomiting. Avoiding dairy could also be beneficial due to a transient lactose intolerance after stomach flu, though infants should still breastfeed or have formula if able to tolerate.
Certain drinks, like apple juice or carbonated beverages, can make vomiting or diarrhea worse, so it's best to stick to rehydration solution or plain water.
If your child has nausea or vomiting again, it's best to stop the food until their stomach can settle.
How long does the stomach flu last in kids?
A stomach flu usually lasts between one and three days. Vomiting typically lasts for less than 24 hours.
However, if your child's symptoms continue for more than 5 days, you should call your pediatrician. You should also call your pediatrician if your child has:
- A high fever
- Severe abdominal pain
- Diarrhea or vomiting with blood
- Signs of dehydration like not urinating, dry skin, no tears or rapid breathing
With the right rest and rehydration, your child should make a full recovery in just a few days. Dr. Rojas says they can even return to school once the diarrhea has stopped and they have not had a fever for 24 hours.
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