The stomach flu: two dreaded words for parents everywhere. This common illness can happen to both adults and children, but kids may catch it more easily — because despite your best efforts, they may touch everything, share food, and not wash their hands often enough.
Babies can also get the stomach flu — perhaps because at a certain age, they put everything in their mouths.
Also called the “stomach bug” and viral gastroenteritis, the stomach flu typically clears up on its own. In fact, the vast majority of kids with the stomach flu won’t need to see a doctor.
But unfortunately, the viruses that cause the stomach flu get around pretty quickly — so if you’re dealing with this now, you may want to stay home and cancel plans for the next few days or so.
The stomach “flu” isn’t actually the flu — and it isn’t caused by the same influenza viruses that normally cause the flu. The real flu attacks your breathing system — nose, throat, and lungs. The stomach flu goes straight — and mercilessly — for the intestines.
The stomach flu is usually caused by one of three viruses:
The norovirus is the most common cause of the stomach flu in kids under the age of 5 years. This virus gives up to
These viruses act fast — your child may get sick only a day or two after catching one. The stomach flu is also very contagious. If one child has it, chances are you and/or other children in your house will be sharing it within the week.
Other kinds of gastrointestinal infections are caused by bacteria. This includes food poisoning, which has slightly different symptoms than the stomach flu.
The stomach flu typically causes two other dreaded things for parents (and children): vomiting and diarrhea. In fact, the stomach flu usually looks a lot worse than it is. Your baby or child may have cycles of vomiting and diarrhea for about 24 hours.
If your child has the stomach flu, they may have hard-to-miss signs and symptoms like:
- diarrhea (usually watery and sometimes explosive)
- stomach pain and cramps
- fever (usually mild and sometimes nonexistent)
- poor appetite
- headache pain
- muscle aches
- stiff joints
If your baby has the stomach flu, the may also be crying and irritable — and who wouldn’t be with these symptoms? Babies with the stomach flu are less likely to have a fever. Rest assured that this common tummy bug typically goes away quickly and by itself.
Related: What to feed a toddler with diarrhea
Most babies and kids won’t need treatment for the stomach flu. There’s no specific treatment for the viruses that cause it. (Keep in mind that antibiotics only work against bacteria — they can’t treat viruses.)
Unless your doctor recommends it, don’t give your child antidiarrheal and anti-nausea medications. Although it doesn’t seem like it, some diarrhea and throwing up can be good because it’s part of getting rid of the virus.
Your doctor might recommend over-the-counter pain relievers to make your child more comfortable.
Never give aspirin to babies and children. Aspirin and children (and even teenagers) don’t mix. It can lead to a condition called Reye’s syndrome.
Several home remedies can help make your baby or child (and you!) more comfortable while dealing with the stomach flu.
- Let the stomach settle. Avoid feeding your baby or child solid food for a few hours.
- Give older children frozen juice treats (popsicles) or ice chips. This helps to prevent dehydration.
- If your baby is throwing up, wait 15 to 20 minutes before giving them any liquids. Try nursing your baby if they want to feed. Drinking milk may help hydrate your baby; it’s OK if they throw up some or all of it right after.
- Try using as syringe to give babies small amounts of liquids if they don’t want to nurse or bottle feed.
- Give toddlers and older kids small sips of water and clear drinks like ginger ale. You can also try clear broths, as well as oral rehydration solutions for babies and small children. You can get these from your local pharmacy without a prescription.
- Try giving your child light, bland foods that will be easy on the stomach. Try crackers, Jell-O, bananas, toast, or rice. However, don’t insist that your child has to eat if they don’t want to.
- Make sure your child gets plenty of rest. Now is the time to pop in a favorite movie or reread beloved books. Get out new toys to help keep you baby entertained.
Stay strong — most kids get over the stomach flu within 24 to 48 hours. Some children may have symptoms for up to 10 days.
The stomach flu may cause severe diarrhea, but there shouldn’t be blood in it. Blood in your child’s urine or bowel movements might be a sign of a more serious infection. Call your child’s pediatrician immediately.
Too much diarrhea and vomiting can sometimes lead to dehydration. Call your doctor immediately for dehydration signs in your baby or toddler like:
- dark urine
- dry diaper for 8 to 12 hours
- excessive sleepiness
- crying without tears or weak crying
- fast breathing
- fast heart rate
Also call your child’s pediatrician if they have signs of a more serious illness, like:
- a fever of 102°F (38.9°C) or higher
- severe stomach pain or discomfort
- stiff neck or body
- severe tiredness or irritability
- not responding to you
You might not be able to stop your child (or yourself) from catching the stomach flu — but you can try. You can at least prevent it from happening as often.
The best way to prevent the stomach flu is wash your hands — and wash them again. Teach your child how to wash their hands properly and to wash them often. Use warm water and soap. Set a timer or have your child sing as song so that they scrub their hands for at least 20 seconds.
Here are more ways to help prevent your child from catching and spreading the virus:
- Keep your sick child home and away from other children.
- Teach your child to wash their hands properly several times a day, especially after using the bathroom and before eating.
- Show your child how they can cover their mouth and nose with a tissue or the inner side of their elbow when sneezing and coughing.
- Tell your child not to share drink boxes, bottles, spoons, and other eating utensils.
- Clean hard surfaces like counters and nightstands with a mixture of detergent, vinegar, and water. Some viruses can survive for up to 24 hours on hard surfaces and even on clothing.
- Wash your child’s toys in warm soapy water regularly, especially if the stomach flu or other viruses are going around.
- Use separate bathroom towels for each family member.
The stomach flu is a common illness in babies and children. Although it pains us to say it, you’ll likely have to go through this more than once with your child. Chances are, you’ll catch the virus too.
It’s hard on moms and dads to see a baby or child sick, so try some of the remedies above to keep them comfortable — and take heart knowing that the bug usually passes quickly. Trust your parental instincts, and talk to your child’s pediatrician if it lingers or symptoms get more serious.