Child health – diarrhoea and vomiting

Our GP explains how to treat this common illness

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Diarrhoea and vomiting is really common in young children. It’s due to irritation of the bowels (intestines), and is otherwise known as ‘gastroenteritis’. It’s mostly due to an infection and usually gets better without treatment. But because it’s harder for children with gastroenteritis to absorb fluid, there’s a risk of dehydration, which can be life threatening, so it’s important to guard against this.

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What causes gastroenteritis?

More than half of tummy upsets in children under 5 will be due to a virus, which often spreads fast because kids are in close contact with one other. Gastroenteritis can also be caused by bacteria such as salmonella. These are most often picked up from infected food or water, are generally more serious, and may require medical treatment.

So when should I go to my GP?

Usually your child will have diarrhoea for between three and five days. But take her to the doctor if:

  • You notice any blood in her poo.
  • There’s a lot of mucus (slime) being passed.
  • You’ve recently returned from being abroad.
  • Your child has severe tummy pain that seems to be getting worse.
  • The diarrhoea lasts for longer than a week.
  • Your child has a high temperature (fever) that doesn’t come down with paracetamol.
  • The diarrhoea is accompanied by vomiting and this hasn’t settled down after 48 hours.
  • Your child has become very dehydrated (see Spotting the signs of dehydration, below).
  • If you’re at all worried, err on the side of caution and see your GP.

Spotting the signs of dehydration

Has your child got a dry mouth and tongue? Has she stopped going for a wee (keep an eye on how often she goes to the loo or how wet her nappy is). Is she drowsy, less active than usual and hard to rouse? If so, she may be dehydrated as a result of the vomiting or diarrhoea.

How can I prevent dehydration?

Medicines to stop diarrhoea or vomiting aren’t recommended for young children. The important thing is to keep them well hydrated until the infection passes. Give your child plenty of fluid to drink – think ‘little and often’ – so offer regular sips of water or diluted juice. Don’t worry if she continues to vomit, as some fluid will still be absorbed.

The best fluid for rehydration contains a little salt and sugar to help the body absorb the maximum amount of water. Rehydration drinks (such as Dioralyte) can be bought from the chemist and are made up from sachets of powder that you mix with water.

Your doctor may recommend these if your child is becoming dehydrated. But remember that any drink is better than none, so if she’ll only touch her favourite sugary drink, or suck an ice lolly, that’s okay.

If you’re breast- or bottlefeeding, you should continue, but you may also need to supplement it with rehydration drinks. If you can’t get your child to take any fluids and you’re worried she’s dehydrated, ask your doctor for advice.

Can my child eat?

Yes – if she’s hungry she can eat a normal diet, but often children won’t want to and that’s okay, too. Once the vomiting has settled, offer plain food that’s high in carbohydrates, such as rice, bread or pasta, or my favourite – mashed banana with honey for kids aged 1 and over!

How can I stop my child getting it?

To be honest, you can’t, it’s just one of those things. But good hygiene helps prevent it happening so often:

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  • Wash hands after using the toilet, gardening or playing with pets and before touching food.
  • In the kitchen, keep raw meat away from cooked/ready-to-eat food.
  • Regularly clean toilets and use disinfectant to wipe the handle and seat after use by the infected person, and don’t share towels or flannels.
  • Keep your child off school or nursery for at least 24 hours after the last diarrhoea or vomiting episode, so others don’t catch it.

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