Stomach flu is a common illness that can affect children, causing symptoms such as diarrhea, vomiting, and fever. It's crucial to understand how to manage these symptoms and prevent dehydration. This article offers expert tips on identifying warning signs, treatment options, and practical advice to help your child recover quickly. Discover what you can do to support your child's health during this challenging time.

What to Do If Your Child Has a Stomach Flu

Stomach Flu - Warning Signs and Treatment Options

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.

What is the Stomach Flu?

The stomach “flu” isn’t actually the flu — and it isn’t caused by the same influenza viruses that normally cause the flu. The real flu attacks your breathing system — nose, throat, and lungs. The stomach flu goes straight — and mercilessly — for the intestines.

The stomach flu is usually caused by one of three viruses:

  • Norovirus
  • Rotavirus
  • Adenovirus

The norovirus is the most common cause of the stomach flu in kids under the age of 5 years. This virus gives up to 21 million people the stomach flu every year. It also leads to about a million visits to the pediatrician every year in the United States. These viruses act fast — your child may get sick only a day or two after catching one.

The stomach flu is also very contagious. If one child has it, chances are you and/or other children in your house will be sharing it within the week. Other kinds of gastrointestinal infections are caused by bacteria. This includes food poisoning, which has slightly different symptoms than the stomach flu.

Catching a Stomach Virus

Your child can contract a pediatric stomach virus in several ways:

  • Through contact with the feces of an infected patient. This happens in places where there are several children in a close environment, such as a daycare center. If a worker in a daycare changes the diaper of an infected child, the virus germs can escape into the surroundings and get picked up by other children. Since the germs can live for several days on surfaces such as toys, doorknobs, and faucets, it spreads rapidly even in the cleanest environments.
  • Sharing food or eating utensils, or even passing contaminated items from one pair of hands to another.
  • Eating food or drinking water or swimming in a pool that is contaminated with the virus.
  • Close contact with another child who has the virus, such as in a playgroup or at school.

Frequent, effective hand washing by children, families, and workers is the best defense against the spread of gastroenteritis in children.

Symptoms of the Stomach Flu

The stomach flu typically causes two other dreaded things for parents (and children): vomiting and diarrhea. In fact, the stomach flu usually looks a lot worse than it is. Your baby or child may have cycles of vomiting and diarrhea for about 24 hours.

If your child has the stomach flu, they may have hard-to-miss signs and symptoms like:

  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach pain and cramps
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Poor appetite
  • Headache pain
  • Muscle aches
  • Stiff joints
  • Tiredness
  • Sleepiness

If your baby has the stomach flu, the may also be crying and irritable — and who wouldn’t be with these symptoms? Babies with the stomach flu are less likely to have a fever. Rest assured that this common tummy bug typically goes away quickly and by itself.

Treatment for the Stomach Flu

Most bouts of pediatric gastroenteritis are “self-limiting” in that the immune system eventually overcomes the virus and the patient begins to recover. Home treatment can include therapies to address the symptoms, such as avoiding dairy products or sugary foods, getting plenty of rest and rehydrating with small sips of clear broth or non-caffeinated sports drinks to replace the electrolytes.

When to Go to The Emergency Room (ER) for Pediatric Stomach Flu

It’s important to get your child to a doctor if the symptoms of pediatric stomach flu get worse or last for longer than 5 days. If she develops severe stomach cramps or bloody diarrhea, these could be signs of a more serious illness than a stomach virus. Signs of dehydration are also a cause for immediate concern.

If your child develops these signs of dehydration, go to the emergency room immediately.

  • High fever
  • Little or no urination
  • Weakness and lethargy
  • A feeling of lightheadedness – or dizziness
  • Dry mouth and other mucus membranes
  • Skin that “tents up” when it’s pinched

Loss of fluids and the inability to replenish them can lead to a number of complications including kidney failure, so it’s vital to make sure your child doesn’t show signs of dehydration.

What the ER Doctor Will Do

Take your child to your nearest children emergency room if you suspect a pediatric stomach virus. The doctor will perform a physical examination and ask questions to rule out other possible causes and could recommend that you give her acetaminophen in small doses to lower her fever. The doctor may also suggest hydration aids such as electrolyte replacement compounds to mix with water, and bland foods for a few days to avoid irritating the stomach further.

Vigilance is the best weapon your child has against a pediatric stomach virus. Teach her to wash her hands regularly, avoid sharing foods and eating utensils, and to be selective about the water that she drinks.

We have 9 facilities spread across the DFW area that are OPEN 24/7 located in Hurst, Colleyville, Frisco, Highland Village, Hillcrest, Uptown, Little Elm, Mansfield, and Texoma.