Avoid heart disease for yourself and pass on the good habits to your kids
Know symptoms and keep sick children hydrated
As an elementary-aged kid, I caught the stomach flu every year like clockwork. I was already skinny, so adding in a week of vomiting and diarrhea made me downright twiggy, rendering calls of “Skinny Lynny” as I ran by on the playground. During that dreaded week, I’d sprawl out on the couch and count the minutes between allotted sips of ginger ale. Graduating to eating bananas and toast amounted to a pleasure greater than a last meal could bring.
If your family hasn’t experienced the stomach flu—scientifically called gastroenteritis—yet this year, count yourselves lucky. It’s the second most common illness after the common cold. It affects, or should I say tortures, upwards of 20 million people in the U.S. each year. Really, you are doubly lucky if you haven’t had it yet, as the usual season is November through April. Hang in there, you’ve almost made it! If you are unfortunate and it slays you at the last minute, here are tips on how to best survive it.
The scoop on gastroenteritis
Gastroenteritis is caused by viruses that attack your stomach and intestines. “There are hundreds of different strains of stomach viruses. It’s true that you can’t get sick with the same virus twice that season, but there are many of its cousins lurking out there for you to catch,” states Dr. Peyton Taliaferro, a Family Medicine Physician with Colorado Health Medical Group—Primary Care South in Loveland.
Calling it the flu is a misnomer. “It is commonly called the stomach flu but it has nothing to do with flu, and a flu shot won’t protect you,” adds Taliaferro.
Generally, there are three varieties of the stomach flu. “Consider the phrase, ‘The candle that burns bright, burns half as long.’ In other words, the more aggressive the vomiting, the faster it will be over,” says Taliaferro. The bright-candle version usually only lasts 24 to 48 hours. The next variety runs about three to four days with less vomiting. “Finally, the really scary one lasts 7 to 10 days with ongoing diarrhea, as with the rotavirus. Fortunately, it’s not as common,” he says.
Rotavirus is more commonly seen in children than adults. It is especially dangerous for infants and young children as it can result in dehydration—a main worry with the stomach flu. A rotavirus vaccine is standard for babies, and has proven to be effective.
Symptoms of the stomach flu
“Usually, the stomach flu starts with stomach cramps followed by a lack of appetite, then nausea, vomiting and lastly, diarrhea. In my experience, children tend to vomit more, and adults tend to have diarrhea more,” states Taliaferro.
According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms include:
- Watery diarrhea
- Abdominal cramps and pain
- Nausea, vomiting or both
- Occasional muscle aches or headache
- Low-grade fever
Treating the stomach flu
If the stomach bug bites you, there’s not much you can do except rest and rehydrate while it runs its course. “As far as over-the-counter medicine goes, I don’t recommend anything other than a fever reducer,” says Taliaferro. He views over the counter anti-diarrhea and stomach soothing medicines as having “dubious benefits for children under the age of 10.”
“The main treatment is simply keeping your child hydrated. Infants and small children can become dehydrated much faster than adults. Dehydration is the real threat of the stomach flu,” adds Taliaferro. Dehydration is the loss of fluids and salts (electrolytes) from the body. The body needs fluids to function, and without them systems start shutting down. According to rehydrate.com, dehydration caused by diarrhea is one of the major causes of death in children.
Signs of dehydration
“The most important sign of dehydration is dark urine and infrequent urinating. For example, healthy babies urinate 8 to 10 times a day. Peeing just 5 to 6 times is a sign of impending dehydration,” states Taliaferro. Other signs don’t come until dehydration has already set in—such as listlessness, sunken eyes and fontanels in babies, crying without tears, dry mucus membranes (mouth, nose), cramping, and irritability. “If your baby is lethargic and not eating or drinking and it is 2am, don’t wait. Take them in immediately,” advises Taliaferro.
How to rehydrate your sick child
There’s more to rehydration than simply getting your child to sip water. They also need to replace salts, or electrolytes, that have become unbalanced with vomiting and diarrhea. “My main advice is to drink a little, and drink often. It’s tempting when we feel thirsty to guzzle down a glass of water, but it fills the stomach and stimulates more vomiting. You have to go slow,” suggests Taliaferro. He recommends waiting 15 to 30 minutes after vomiting to let the stomach settle before introducing fluids. Then, offer Pedialyte or another sports-type drink with salt in it by the tablespoonful. “With babies, I set a five-minute timer and give them a tablespoon every five minutes. Older children and adults can have an ounce or two every five minutes,” he adds.
The salt offered in sports drinks is not special. “Salt is salt, whether it is called an electrolyte-replacer or not. Sports drinks tend to have plain table salt or potassium chloride, another common form of salt,” says Taliaferro. That’s why he recommends a light chicken soup as an alternative: “A salty chicken soup is a great way to rehydrate, especially for older children and adults.” Pedialyte is ideal for young children and infants, as it has more salt that a drink such as Gatorade.
While it isn’t Taliaferro’s first choice, he will say yes to a parent who says her child only wants water, juice or soda: “At that point, rehydration is the most important goal. It’s okay to be off with electrolytes for a little while, but a sick child needs to get hydrated as quickly as possible. So if it’s the only thing he will accept, I say great.” The only drink he doesn’t recommend is milk as lactose is digested in the intestines and will cause more diarrhea. On the other hand, moms who are breastfeeding can still do so—just keep it frequent and short, so your baby is mostly getting the watery foremilk. Also, know that if you have the stomach flu, you can’t pass it to your baby through your milk.
While hydrating, if your child throws up again, you need to start over with the smallest sips before building up, over time, to larger sips.
“It’s very difficult to tell a thirsty child that she can’t drink,” says Taliaferro who offers another great tip: Give your child a Popsicle. “They’re cold so she can’t eat it very fast. Plus, the cold is soothing to the stomach.” If you didn’t already know, Pedialyte has popsicles.
When can he eat again?
It’s simple: “Once your child says he’s hungry, let him eat because kids usually are not hungry during the stomach flu, even in the diarrhea phase,” says Taliaferro. Generally, wait until the vomiting has stopped for at least a few hours.
Start slow and think simple. Have you heard of the BRAT diet? It stands for Bananas, Rice, Applesauce and Toast. These foods are easy to digest. Other people swear by a clear liquid diet of Jell-O and ginger ale. And there’s always saltine crackers and chicken soup. Just avoid hard-to-digest foods like cheesy fries, milkshakes and burgers for a day or two. When the diarrhea has completely stopped, you can get back to a normal diet.
Lastly, consider restoring your child’s gut flora with a round of probiotics or yogurt with active cultures like acidophilus or bifidus: “There is a lot of new, good data about the benefits of probiotics, particularly after diarrhea and bacterial and viral stomach infections. Just wait a day after the diarrhea has resolved,” states Taliaferro.
Stop its insidious spread
Now that you’ve got your child on the mend, take precautions to keep it from spreading around your household or her classroom. “Of course, the most important way to prevent spreading is simply washing your hands and the hands of your child, often,” says Taliaferro. Particularly, wash after changing diapers—as rotavirus is spread through poop—after tending to your sick child, and before preparing meals. But you don’t have to go overboard. “You don’t have to take it to illogical extremes like washing doorknobs or wiping everything down every 20 minutes,” he adds.
The good news is that even though the stomach flu is highly contagious, your child isn’t contagious for long: “Once he is well for 24 hours, his contagiousness is minimal. If he got over diarrhea today, he’ll probably be just a little contagious tomorrow. Mostly it’s during the acute stage of the illness,” concludes Taliaferro.
Expecting a baby and want to be prepared?
Attend Baby Care 101! This class, offered by UCHealth, prepares expectant parents for the basic care of newborns during the first few months. Topics include signs of illness, safety, development and parental adjustment.
When: Tuesday, March 12, 6-9pm
Where: Poudre Valley Hospital, 1024 S. Lemay, Fort Collins, Indian Paintbrush Room
To register: 970-495-7500
Note: This class is offered most months at either PVH or MCR. Call for more information or visit http://www.pvhs.org/ and click on Events & Classes.