We provide information on gastroenteritis and explains the signs and symptoms, Treatments, Risks and Complications of this bug and the special considerations for children with gastroenteritis.

What is gastro?

Children have an amazing ability to become sick very suddenly and then, after appropriate treatment, make an amazingly fast recovery to full health.

Gastroenteritis – or gastro – is one of these ‘get sick quick, get well quick’ conditions.

Gastroenteritis means an inflammation of the lining of the stomach and intestines and it presents in children primarily as vomiting and/or diarrhoea.

Viral gastroenteritis is responsible for about half of all cases of gastroenteritis; babies and young children from 6 months – 3 years are particularly prone.

The most common virus causing this condition is rotavirus – caught from a person who has the virus or by touching something that is contaminated with the virus. Viral gastroenteritis can cause large outbreaks of vomiting and diarrhoea at schools and other childcare organisations.

Gastroenteritis can also be bacterial or parasitic (caused by a parasite) infections – for example eating infected food or being in contact with someone who has gastroenteritis. Bacterial gastroenteritis can be severe and includes conditions such as campylobacter, salmonella and E Coli infections. Other causes of gastroenteritis include food intolerances, spicy foods and even antibiotic treatment.

Viral gastroenteritis is a common childhood illness and is usually mild. It does not normally last longer than 3 days and is treated at home by giving fluids and letting your child rest.

The main danger with children – and especially young babies – is that they become dehydrated due to not being able to keep down fluids, or from excessive fluids lost through loose bowel movements.

Small babies cannot tolerate becoming dehydrated and any spell of vomiting or diarrhoea that lasts more than three hours needs an urgent visit to the doctor. The younger the child, the greater the risk of dehydration.

What are the signs and symptoms of gastroenteritis?

  • Initially your child may go off their food
  • Stomach ache
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea – bowel motions will be runny, smelly and frequent and there may be more than six per day
  • Fever – this can worsen dehydration
  • Dehydration – your baby or child’s mouth might look dry and in babies the fontanelle (the soft portion of the top of the head not protected by skull bone) will look sunken
  • Child may feel miserable and look flushed in the face

What is the treatment for gastroenteritis?

  • You need to seek urgent treatment/ advice for your child if:
  • Your baby is under 1 year old
  • They have become obviously dehydrated
  • They have passed blood in their bowel motions
  • They have had diarrhoea lasting for more than 24 hours
  • They will not eat or drink
  • They have a fever
  • If any baby or child has several loose bowel motions over a 1-2 hour period, contact your doctor

Milder cases of diarrhoea and vomiting in older children can be treated at home.

  • Give your child plenty to drink – start with small sips
  • Cooled boiled water is the fluid of choice
  • Do not give children with diarrhoea undiluted soft drinks, sports drinks, coffee or tea
  • Your doctor may recommend a rehydration powder (you can buy this from a chemist or receive it on prescription)
  • Gradually reintroduce more solid food diet as your child improves – for example, start with soups and see how this is tolerated
  • Avoid dairy products initially, until your child improves
  • Let them rest
  • If your child is not improving or has a stomach ache that does not go away, see a doctor
  • If the symptoms do not clear, your doctor may send a stool sample to be tested

Risks and complications of gastroenteritis

Babies are at risk of rapid dehydration. Babies that become dehydrated may require hospitalisation and treatment with intravenous fluids (given directly into the vein).

If you think your baby is suffering dehydration, then contact your doctor without delay.

Be aware of the symptoms of dehydration in a child with gastroenteritis. These include:

  • Baby’s nappies being drier than normal
  • Baby’s not passing urine for 6-8 hours
  • The eyes looking dry – no tears when they cry – and they may look sunken
  • The skin loses elasticity
  • The skin over the stomach may look wrinkled and dry
  • Tongue, lips and mouth may look dry and parched
  • Baby becomes floppy and tired – listless and moving a lot less
  • The infant has a sunken fontanelle
  • Your baby/child is particularly irritable

How to treat a child with gastro at home

For the child you are nursing at home, the main aim is to keep them comfortable, clean and build up their fluid intake as the condition improves.

  • Encourage them to drink plenty of fluids – cooled boiled water
  • If your baby is breast-fed, continue breast feeding and give additional water (cooled, boiled water)
  • If your baby is on formula, continue to give them formula (unless advised otherwise by your doctor) and additional cooled boiled water as tolerated
  • Wash your child’s face and hands frequently to keep them feeling fresh
  • Ensure they get a daily bath or shower and change the bed sheets to help them feel better
  • Teach your children good hygiene – to wash and dry their hands thoroughly after each use of the toilet and any other times when they may potentially be exposed to germs
  • Cook food properly, prepare food on clean surfaces and if food ever smells bad, throw it out immediately
  • Breast feeding offers some protection against gastroenteritis – it helps avoid the illness, or when babies or children do get it, it is in a milder form.

Now that you know more about gastro, for more expert health advice, see our Common childhood illnesses section.

5 1 vote
Article Rating

Kimberley Paterson is a writer and public relations expert living in Whangaparaoa. She had an initial career as a registered nurse and has spent the last 20 years writing about health and well-being.

Notify of

1 Comment
oldest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Carol Armstrong

Thank you.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x