There is no way around it; Stomach bugs are just plain nasty. They are no fun to have and no fun to clean up. Combining the ick of caring for and cleaning up after a child who has a stomach bug with the dread of knowing there is a good chance it will spread through the whole house is enough to cause some serious parental anxiety. Although we can’t take the ick away, here is some basic info about stomach bugs and our top 5 tips to survive the mess and help your little one feel better faster!
Stomach bugs or gastroenteritis, which is the medical term, are typically caused by viruses and cause vomiting, diarrhea, and sometimes fever. Most of the time, vomiting starts first and lasts 24-48 hours. Diarrhea usually follows and can last from a few days to a couple of weeks. These viruses are contagious, so handwashing and sanitizing surfaces are key. Most of the time, symptoms can be managed at home, but if vomiting is severe and leads to dehydration or lasts more than 48 hours, you should consult your pediatrician. Check out our post on preventing dehydration in kids here for more tips.
Easier said than done, but keeping your little one hydrated is the key to getting them safely through a stomach bug. Believe it or not, pediatricians do not worry about a child not eating for a few days. They’ll be fine without food for longer than you’d think, but not drinking can lead to life-threatening dehydration. Offer small amounts of clear liquids like Pedialyte or diluted juice (1:1 with water) frequently and watch for signs of dehydration (sunken eyes, dry lips, mouth, decreased tears, fatigue.) Our secret weapon against dehydration is popsicles! They are tasty, and kids like them. Plus, when kids feel thirsty and want to drink too quickly, it can lead to more vomiting. Popsicles naturally slow them down and pace their intake. Pedialyte even makes popsicles with the same electrolyte solution as their drinks. And remember, dehydration can be dangerous, especially for very young children, so if you cannot get your child to drink or they are losing fluids too quickly to keep up with, seek help from your healthcare provider.
A lot of the stress around stomach bugs revolves around the icky mess factor and contagiousness. Does anyone else find cleaning up chunks of puke totally gag-inducing? For young kids, use layers of easy-to-wash fabrics to help with clean up. Layer towels around where they are resting or sleeping, peel off layers and toss them in the wash when dirty. Disposable puppy pads also work great for this or a combination of both! Older kids might be able to aim and use a bucket more effectively, but having towels around the area is still a good idea to catch misses. Have you heard of the glow stick trick? I saw someone share this a while back on social media and thought it was genius. For older kids who can use a bucket, place it next to their bed with a glow stick inside it at night so they can have an easier time seeing it and aiming in the dark!
The viruses that cause stomach bugs are notoriously contagious, and even a few viral particles can cause illness. This is why sanitizing well is crucial when cleaning up to avoid spread. Use the hot water wash/sanitize cycle in the wash and bleach for white fabrics. Use a diluted bleach solution for surfaces to most effectively kill the viruses that cause gastroenteritis. Don’t forget to clean with the area well ventilated and preferably distanced from kiddos when using bleach solutions. For more information on how to safely disinfect with bleach read more here. Always wash your hands thoroughly after cleaning up, when in close contact with sick family members, or when changing a sick little one’s diaper.
Most kids will not need medication for a stomach bug. However, you may opt to give fever reducers (acetaminophen or ibuprofen) if they have a high fever or belly pain. Fever can make them sleepy and uncomfortable, less interested in drinking, and can lead to further dehydration. Occasionally if a child has more severe vomiting (challenging to keep up with intake to maintain hydration), their doctor may prescribe an antinausea medication. We don’t typically treat viral diarrhea in kids. Probiotics may be helpful as they recover so consider an over the counter probiotic or increasing their intake of fermented foods like low sugar yogurt with live cultures.
When to let them eat:
You can often follow your child’s lead regarding whether they are ready to eat. However, as a rule of thumb, avoid reintroducing foods until they are tolerating clear liquids and going at least 2 hours between episodes of vomiting. Then you can let them eat what they want but help them with pacing. They should eat small amounts slowly and then wait to ensure it is tolerated. You don’t have to limit them to a BRAT diet (bananas, rice, apple sauce, toast). Studies have shown it does not speed up recovery. Instead, avoid highly acidic, spicy, or greasy foods and, otherwise, follow their lead. Some individuals will have transient lactose intolerance after an episode of gastroenteritis due to inflammation impacting the intestinal lining, where the enzyme that digests lactose functions. When this happens, it can cause belly pain and worsen diarrhea. In this case, you may need to eliminate or limit dairy until they fully recover.
Stomach bugs are a real drag, but fortunately, they are usually short-lasting, and kids usually recover quickly! Hopefully, these tips can help you get through a little easier. So try to enjoy the extra cuddles and know you’re not alone. One more hack, if the smells get to you, a dab of peppermint oil under the nose might help if you get the gags cleaning up barf messes!