Gastroenteritis

Gastroenteritis is an infection in the stomach and intestines that causes diarrhea and sometimes vomiting. It is common in babies and children. It is caused by a virus or bacteria in the intestinal tract (bowels). Bacteria or viruses get to the intestinal tract by putting hands, toys or other objects near or into the mouth.

It is more serious in babies and young children than it is in adults. This is because the diarrhea can cause dehydration. Vomiting can also cause the loss of needed minerals from the body (dehydration).

What Are Signs and Symptoms?

  • Diarrhea (frequent, loose, watery stools) lasting two to four days but usually no more than a week
  • Nausea and vomiting lasting one to two days
  • Abdominal pain (belly pain)
  • Fever (sometimes)

Caring for Your Child

Babies

  • Breastfeed or bottle-feed more often, and for shorter amounts of time. If diarrhea continues, offer 2-3 ounces of Pedialyte (or a generic brand) to prevent dehydration after each time diarrhea occurs.
  • Keep feeding with normal formula or breast milk. Pedialyte can be alternated with normal feedings.
  • With ongoing vomiting, you may need to decrease feeding size to one to one-half ounce each 30 to 60 minutes, and offer feedings more often.

Children

  • Give liquids in small amounts and often.
  • Your child may be better able to handle food in smaller, more frequent feedings.

Warning: Do not give your child medicine to stop the diarrhea. Talk with your doctor before giving your child any medicines.

Other diet suggestions

  • Most often, the diarrhea and vomiting only last a short time. The child's diet may not need to change if the diarrhea is mild. If your baby is breastfeeding, keep feeding on demand.
  • If your baby is bottle-fed, keep feeding as normal with full-strength formula. Older children can continue their normal diet, but should avoid foods that may make the diarrhea worse (such as apple or pear juice).
  • Do NOT limit your child’s intake to the BRAT (bananas, rice, applesauce, toast) diet. This diet does not provide enough nutrition during this illness. This diet also does not make the symptoms go away any faster.
  • Foods that are good for your child are cereals, bread, potatoes, lean meats, plain yogurt, bananas, applesauce and veggies.
  • Avoid giving your child juices, carbonated drinks or Jell-O water. These have sugars. When taken in large amounts, they may make the diarrhea worse.
  • Oral rehydration solutions (ORS) like Pedialyte come in many flavors. They also come in liquid form and freezer pops. ORS can be found at grocery stores and pharmacies.
  • Children with mild diarrhea may not like the taste of Pedialyte. This is because their bodies haven't lost enough salt yet for them to crave salts.

What Are the Signs of Dehydration?

Early signs:

  • No urine output in 8-12 hours (babies most often have 6-8 wet diapers in 24 hours)
  • Less active than normal, strangely sleepy, or hard to arouse
  • The urine is dark yellow and may smell "strong"
  • Mouth saliva (spit) is thick and sticky rather than thin and watery
  • No tears when crying

Later more serious signs:

  • All of the signs above
  • Baby's soft spot is sunken
  • Child's eyes are sunken
  • Baby or child has no energy and is hard to wake up

How Can I Prevent Gastroenteritis?

It is not possible to keep a child from being exposed to the germs that cause gastroenteritis. Proper hand washing by the whole family is the best way to prevent the spread of disease.

Make sure each person in the family washes their hands with soap and water:

  • After using the bathroom
  • After handling diapers
  • Before handling food or preparing food or drink

Treatment for Diaper Rash

  • Clean the diaper area gently and fully with soap and water and pat dry with a clean towel.
  • Apply a zinc-based ointment (e.g., Desitin) thickly after cleaning the bottom. This keeps the diarrhea stool away from your child's skin.
  • Wash hands and diapering surfaces well after each diaper change.

Call Your Child's Doctor If

  • You are not able to get fluids into the child and diarrhea lasts longer than 24 hours
  • You are able to get fluids into the child but diarrhea lasts more than 7-10 days
  • Your child shows any of these signs:
    • No urine output in 8-12 hours
    • No tears when crying
    • Strangely drowsy or fussy
    • Inside of the mouth or lips are dry
    • Eyes appear sunken
    • Child is very thirsty
    • Blood is present in the diarrhea or vomit
    • Bile (green fluid) is present in the vomit
    • Baby's soft spot is sunken

Your doctor may ask to see your child or have your child seen in the emergency department. Your child will be checked and watched for signs of dehydration. The care team will measure how much fluid goes in and comes out of your child. Your child will be weighed.

You may be asked to help care for your child by giving them Pedialyte. This replaces the fluid lost from diarrhea and vomiting and allows you to be active in your child's care. This may keep your child from needing an IV.

If the diarrhea and vomiting continue and your child refuses fluids by mouth, he or she may need an IV. An IV will let special fluids go into your child through a vein.

Last Updated 03/2021

Reviewed By Nick DeBlasio, MD

Visiting Cincinnati Childrens.

Cincinnati Children’s has primary care services at locations throughout Greater Cincinnati.