Gastroenteritis stomach fluGastroenteritis, popularly known as the stomach bug, is an infection of the stomach and intestines. Just about everyone has had gastroenteritis at least once in their life, and most recover on their own. However, for infants, children, and those who are immune-compromised, gastroenteritis can lead to hospitalization or even death. It is important for parents to know about the causes, symptoms, and treatment for this common infection. 

What Causes The Stomach Bug?

People commonly refer to gastroenteritis as the “stomach flu,” but it’s not actually the flu at all. Influenza (“the flu”) does not cause gastroenteritis. 

About 70% of gastroenteritis is caused by viruses. The main culprits are two very contagious viruses: rotavirus and norovirus. Rotavirus is the top cause of diarrhea in babies and small children worldwide. In fact, nearly every child in the world is infected with rotavirus at least once by the age of five. Norovirus is the most common cause of severe gastroenteritis and foodborne illnesses in the United States. 

While those are the two primary causes of gastroenteritis, there are other possible causes for stomach bugs, too - including other viruses, bacteria, and parasites:

  • Food that has not been prepared or stored properly can grow bacteria on its surface, and these bacteria sometimes produce irritating chemicals called toxins. If a child eats the germ-filled food, symptoms of gastroenteritis are triggered either by the bacteria themselves or by their irritating byproducts. Examples of bacterial gastroenteritis include E. coli, shigella, campylobacter, and salmonella. E.coli is most commonly spread from contaminated food - such as ground beef, unpasteurized milk and fresh produce. Shigella can come from contaminated food and drinking water. Campylobacter and salmonella are typically spread to humans through undercooked poultry and eggs. 
  • Another less common cause of gastroenteritis are parasites, which can be found in contaminated water. 

No matter its specific cause, gastroenteritis is usually spread by contact with another person who is infected. It may also be passed on through contaminated food or water, or after improperly handling feces.

What Are Common Stomach Bug Symptoms?

While specific gastroenteritis symptoms may vary depending on its exact cause, the following are all common symptoms shared by these illnesses:

  • Stomach pain or cramping
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Poor feeding 
  • Fever, chills
  • Irritability or fussiness, especially in infants

Is There a Stomach Bug Treatment?

As most cases of gastroenteritis are viral, antibiotics will not help get your child better faster. In fact, antibiotics may just worsen the symptoms. However, there are a number of ways to bring symptomatic relief from pain and gastrointestinal troubles, including:

  • Acetaminophen
  • Ibuprofen (use with caution to avoid excess irritation to the stomach)
  • Water and Pedialyte to replace lost fluids and electrolytes
  • Lean meats and complex carbs - e.g. chicken, fish, potatoes, and whole grains

Non-viral causes of gastroenteritis may or may not need prescription medication treatment. Antibiotics can often worsen many infections, even bacterial ones.  Talk to your provider before starting any other medications.

Do not give your child anti-diarrhea medicines without checking with a doctor first. These medicines can interfere with the intestine's ability to eliminate the infection in the stool. This can make it harder to know when your child is actually getting sicker. 

No matter the cause of the stomach bug, it is important to keep children out of daycare or school until their symptoms are gone. Gastroenteritis often spreads quickly and easily, so the risk of infecting others is high.

When Should You See The Doctor?

Children should see a doctor right away if they have any of the following: 

  • Fever of 102 F (38.9 C) or higher 
  • Extreme lethargy or irritability 
  • Severe abdominal pain or swelling
  • Bloody or bile-stained (green) vomit
  • Bloody diarrhea 
  • Signs of dehydration (dry skin/ mouth; dark-colored urine; decreased urination)
  • History of recent travel to an area with poor santition
  • A chronic medical condition, especially any condition that weakens the immune system or is treated with immune-suppressing medication

How Can I Protect My Child Against The Stomach Bug?

Proper hygiene and handwashing are the best way to stop most germs from spreading.

  • Wash your hands with soap and water, especially after using the toilet, after changing diapers and after caring for a child with diarrhea. 
  • Wash your hands with soap and water before and after preparing food, especially after handling raw meat. 
  • Wash diarrhea-soiled clothing in detergent and chlorine bleach. Wipe bathroom surfaces with a chlorine-based household cleaner.
  • Cook all meat thoroughly and refrigerate leftovers within two hours.
  • Wash kitchen countertops and utensils thoroughly after they have been used to prepare meat.
  • Never drink unpasteurized milk, unpasteurized apple cider or untreated water.
  • If you travel to an area where sanitation is poor, make sure that your family drinks only bottled water or soft drinks. Don't eat ice, uncooked vegetables or fruit that they haven't peeled themselves.

While helpful, these methods are not foolproof. Vaccines, however, can also help protect your child. Young infants should receive the rotavirus vaccine starting around 2 months of age, which has been shown to protect children against 85% to 98% of severe illness from rotavirus. And the Hepatitis A vaccine is universally recommended for all toddlers 12 to 23 months of age, and catch-up doses for older children.

Still have questions or concerns about the stomach bug? Capital Area Pediatrics can assist your family whether you need routine or urgent care. If you suspect your child has a stomach bug, you can schedule a sick visit so they are evaluated quickly based off of their symptoms. If you’re unsure whether to visit our office or go to an urgent care center, find your nearest location and give our staff a call today.