Diarrhoea and vomiting (gastroenteritis)

Diarrhoea and vomiting is common among young kids. We look at what causes it and how to treat it.

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What is gastroenteritis?

Diarrhoea and vomiting, also called gastroenteritis, is really common in young children. It’s due to irritation of the bowels (intestines) and is more serious in babies and young children because it’s harder for them to absorb fluid, so there’s a risk of dehydration. If this is acute can be life threatening but it very rarely is.


What causes gastroenteritis?

It’s mostly due to a viral infection, which often spreads fast because kids are in very close contact with one other. More than half of tummy upsets in children under 5 will be due to a virus.

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.

When should I go to my GP?

Usually your child will have diarrhoea for between three and five days. But take him to the doctor if:
*You notice any blood in his 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.

How is it treated?

Gastroenteritis usually gets better without treatment. Recovery is about rehydration and rest.

Spotting the signs of dehydration

If your child has more than one of the following symptoms, he is suffering dehydration:
*A dry mouth and tongue.
*Stopped going for a wee (with an infant still in a nappy, keep an eye on how wet it is).
*Drowsy and hard to rouse.
*Less active than usual.

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 naturally. Give your child plenty of water (or if he won’t take that then diluted juice). Get them to take it ‘little and often’. Don’t worry if he 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) consist of sachets of powder that you mix with water. They’re available from any chemist. Your doctor may recommend these if your child’s becoming dehydrated.

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

Can my child eat?

Yes – if he’s hungry he can eat a normal diet, but often children won’t want to until the infection’s subsiding or past 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 mashed banana with honey (for kids aged 12 months and over).

How can I stop my child getting gastroenteritis?

You can’t really, it’s just one of those things. But good hygiene helps prevent it happening so often:
*Wash hands after using the toilet, gardening or playing with pets and before touching food.
*In the kitchen, keep raw meat away from cooked or ready-to-eat food.
*Regularly clean toilets and use disinfectant to wipe the handle and seat after use by the infected person.
*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 that others don’t catch it (this is a house rule in most nurseries and schools).


For more information of baby, toddler and child health issues, don’t miss Practical Parenting magazine each month.

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