Gastroenteritis and Constipation In Children: Causes and Treatment

What is gastroenteritis? Read on to learn the causes, symptoms and treatment of gastroenteritis in children.

What is Gastroenteritis in Children? (“Stomach Flu”)

Gastroenteritis, commonly known as "stomach flu", is the infection of the stomach and intestines. Many viruses, bacteria and other microbes (germs) can cause gastroenteritis. In children, gastroenteritis is most commonly caused by viruses. They are easily spread from an infected person to another by close contact e.g. contact with an infected person's hands after they have been to the toilet or with surfaces or objects touched by an infected person.  The virus can also be passed on if the infected person prepares food.

Food poisoning (from eating food infected with microbes) causes some cases of gastroenteritis. Food poisoning is usually caused by a bacterial infection. Common examples are species of bacteria called Campylobacter, Salmonella and Escherichia coli. Gastroenteritis is common and often self-limiting in young children.

Related: Food Poisoning in Children

Symptoms of Gastroenteritis in Children

  • Diarrhoea (frequent, loose watery stools, usually at least 3 times in 24 hours)
  • Vomiting
  • Tummy pain
  • Fever 

Related: Diarrhoea (Child)

Treatment for Gastroenteritis in Children

In most children, the symptoms are mild and they tend to get better within a few days without any treatment other than drinking plenty of fluids. The important thing is to ensure that they have plenty to drink so that there is no excessive loss of fluids from frequent vomiting and/or diarrhoea. These are some treatment suggestions:

1. Adequate Hydration

Get your child to drink more water and rest as much as possible. Do note that if your child is vomiting, avoid giving him large amounts of water at one go as it is likely to trigger more vomiting. Instead, give him small, frequent sips of water.

2. Encourage Fluids

Gastroenteritis may reduce the intestines' ability to digest lactose in milk, resulting in more tummy ache and diarrhoea. Try to encourage fluids such as water, barley water, rice water or rehydration fluids as advised by your doctor. If he has no appetite for solid food, do not worry. Adequate fluid intake is more important.

3. Introduce Food Slowly

Once your child's vomiting subsides in the early stage, resume a normal diet gradually with lean meats and complex carbohydrates (e.g. rice, bread). Avoid fatty, spicy or fried foods and sugary beverages.

4. Avoid Anti-Diarrheal Medications

Unless prescribed by the doctor, do not give your child anti-diarrhoea medications. Diarrhoea is the body's natural mechanism to remove harmful viruses, bacteria and toxins from the body. Certain anti-diarrhoeal medications are not safe in young children and may cause more problems.

When Do You Bring Your Child To The Hospital? 

Occasionally, children may develop severe gastroenteritis, requiring medical attention. If you have any concerns or if your child has the following symptoms, please bring him/her to see a doctor:

  • Inability to tolerate small amounts of fluids for more than 6 hours
  • Signs of severe dehydration such as dry mouth/lips, dry eyes with no tears when crying, no urination or wet diapers for 8-12 hours, and dizziness.
  • Unusually sleepy, drowsy, or unresponsive
  • Severe, watery diarrhoea that lasts for more than 3-4 days
  • Stools that contain blood, pus, or thick mucus
  • Persistently high fever for more than 3 days
  • Infections caught abroad
  • If your child's symptoms are not improving after 2 days

Prevention of Gastroenteritis 

There are some simple things that we can do to reduce the risk of having gastroenteritis:

  • Proper hand hygiene: Encourage your child to wash his/her hands with soap and water regularly, especially after using the toilet, before having meals, after gardening or playing with pets.
  • Avoid contaminated food: Wash all fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating and cook meat completely (avoid undercooked meat or fish). Avoid unpasteurised milk or untreated water, especially when travelling overseas. Sterilise bottles before each use.
  • Immunisation: Vaccinate your child with the rotavirus vaccine to protect him/her from rotavirus, which is one of the commonest causes of gastroenteritis in children. 

Related: Viral Gastroenteritis

Disclaimer: The information provided in this article is meant purely for educational purposes and may not be used as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should seek the advice of your doctor or a qualified healthcare provider before starting any treatment or if you have any questions related to your health, physical fitness or medical condition.

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