Lots of children get gastroenteritis, which is often called gastro. Gastro causes diarrhoea and occasionally vomiting. It mostly doesn’t last long, although the entire illness can sometimes last for up to 10 days. Your child usually won’t need medication, but you do need to make sure your child gets enough fluid.
Causes of gastroenteritis
Gastro is usually caused by a virus – or, less commonly, by a bacterial or parasite infection. These germs cause inflammation of the gut wall, which leads to diarrhoea and vomiting.
Rotavirus is a common cause of viral gastroenteritis in children. It’s becoming less common, because rotavirus immunisation is now part of Australia’s National Immunisation Program. Your child gets this immunisation at two, four and six months of age.
Symptoms of gastroenteritis
Gastro symptoms include:
Your child might not feel like eating or drinking or might have trouble keeping down food or drink because of vomiting. If your child doesn’t get enough fluid, there’s a risk he’ll get dehydrated.
When to see your doctor about gastro
Take your child to the doctor if:
- there’s a lot of diarrhoea (8-10 watery poos, or 2-3 very large poos a day)
- your child is vomiting often and can’t seem to keep any fluids down
- your child seems to be dehydrated – she’s not passing urine, is pale and thin, has sunken eyes, cold hands and cold feet, is drowsy or cranky
- your child develops severe abdominal pain
- there’s blood in your child’s poo
- your child’s vomit is a green colour.
Treatment for gastro
Most cases of gastroenteritis in children aren’t serious, but it’s important to make sure that your child gets enough fluid.
What your child should drink
Give your child small amounts to drink often.
It’s best to use an oral rehydration fluid like Gastrolyte®, Hydralyte™, Pedialyte® or Repalyte®. You can buy these fluids over the counter from a pharmacy. These products might come as premade liquid, powder or icy poles for freezing. Make sure that you make up the liquid carefully according to the instructions on the packet.
If you can’t get oral rehydration fluid, you can use diluted lemonade, cordial or fruit juice. Use one part of lemonade or juice to four parts of water. Full-strength lemonade, cordial or fruit juice might make the diarrhoea worse, so don’t give these to your child.
If you have a young breastfed baby, keep breastfeeding but feed more often. You can give your child extra oral rehydration solution between feeds. If your baby is bottle fed, give him oral rehydration fluid for the first 24 hours only and then reintroduce full-strength formula in smaller, more frequent feeds. You can still offer extra oral rehydration fluids between feeds.
Getting your child to drink
Your child might not be keen to drink. You can try to get her drinking more by giving her drinks via a syringe or spoon, and letting her suck icy poles. You can get Hydralyte™ icy poles from pharmacies – they have about 50 ml of water each.
To get enough fluid into your child, you might need to be patient and just keep trying. The key is offering small amounts often.
Your child might refuse food to start with. If he’s hungry, you can give him food at the same time as fluid. It’s generally best to start with bland foods such as plain biscuits, bread, rice, potato or jelly. He can start eating other foods gradually.
Additional treatment and complications
If your child is very dehydrated or can’t keep any oral fluids down, she might need fluids to be given directly into a vein through a drip or through a tube that goes up her nose and into her stomach. In this case, she’ll have to go into hospital.
Don’t treat your child with antidiarrhoeal agents. There’s no evidence to show that these treatments work.
Your child probably doesn’t need antibiotics either, because the most common cause of gastroenteritis is a virus, which doesn’t respond to antibiotics.
Occasionally your child might develop temporary lactose intolerance after the gastroenteritis has settled. Symptoms of this include diarrhoea that goes on for more than 1-2 weeks, or buttock excoriation in young babies. You’ll need to see your doctor, who might suggest your child tries a lactose-free diet for a couple of weeks before you reintroduce dairy foods.
Gastro spreads easily.
You can help prevent the spread of gastro by making sure everyone in the family washes their hands regularly and doesn’t share drink bottles, cups or food utensils.
If your child has gastro, keep him away from other children and school or child care until he’s had no vomiting or diarrhoea for at least 24 hours.