EXPERT ADVICE: Does my kid have stomach flu?

We give you the lowdown on stomach flu in kids and how you can deal with it.

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In the first few years, junior will be catching illnesses left, right and centre. It’s mostly nothing to worry about as they are all usually common childhood ailments.

However, do look out for the stomach flu, which will plague your peewee at some point. Also known as gastroenteritis, it results from an inflamed stomach and intestines. Symptoms include abdominal pain and vomiting, and sometimes, diarrhoea or fever.

Stomach flu or gastroenteritis is a common condition and the general paediatric unit treats a handful of cases daily, notes Professor Quak Seng Hock, Head & Senior Consultant, Division of Paediatric Gastroenterology, Nutrition and Hepatology, National University Hospital. “A child at any age can get gastroenteritis, but it is more common in the first few years of life,” he adds.

Acute gastroenteritis sufferers usually recover within five to seven days. In some cases, it may take up to two weeks. “Make sure the child has adequate supply of oral electrolyte solution and monitor the urine output,” advises Prof Quak. “Also ensure good hand hygiene to prevent cross infection to other members of the family.”

In 2015, 2 billion cases of gastroenteritis resulted in 1.3 million deaths globally ― children and those living in the developing world were the most affected.

In children, the stomach flu is usually caused by two common viral infections known as rotavirus and norovirus. Since they’re both similar in the way they present themselves, it can be confusing for parents who are trying to determine what their child has.

Despite being mostly uncomfortable, gastroenteritis is usually mild in nature, but when not treated quickly, can result in death. In fact, in 2015, 2 billion gastroenteritis cases resulted in 1.3 million deaths globally ― children and those living in the developing world were affected the most.

SmartParents speaks to Prof Quak about stomach flu and to learn ways to avoid contracting this viral infection.

Prof Quak, what is rotavirus?

Rotavirus is a common virus that causes diarrhoea in children. It was first discovered some 50 years ago in Australia. It is called rotavirus because of its “wheel-like” appearance when seen under an electron microscope. Rotavirus can lead to severe dehydration and other serious consequences, including death. Early medical consultation is necessary if the child is vomiting and has diarrhoea. One effective way to prevent severe rotavirus diarrhoea is by vaccination.

What are the symptoms associated with rotavirus?

Vomiting and watery diarrhoea, with or without fever. It is self-limiting [the condition ultimately resolves itself without treatment] as the disease improves within about a week. But when there’re complications with diarrhoea and vomiting, it can be troublesome. Dehydration is the most common complication and can lead to death. So, it’s of great importance to maintain adequate fluid intake. If your child is not able to drink an adequate amount of fluids, see your doctor at once. The first rotavirus infection is the most serious and usually leads to severe diarrhoea and dehydration. A child can have multiple episodes of rotavirus infections, however, the disease gets milder with every subsequent infection.

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What is norovirus then?

Norovirus is another virus that can cause diarrhoea and vomiting. It is spread through food and water or contaminated surfaces. One can get infected with this condition [gastric flu] through close contact with an infected person. Again, it is self-limiting and the infected person would recover within a few days without treatment. However, the infected person can become dehydrated if adequate fluid intake is not maintained.

How do you differentiate between rotavirus and norovirus?

It is not possible for parents to tell the difference between rotavirus and norovirus infections because the clinical features are quite similar.

Rotavirus in young children can be prevented by giving the rotavirus vaccine in early infancy.

What about treatment? How are both treated?

As mentioned earlier, the main complication of rotavirus and norovirus infection is dehydration. So, the most important step is to ensure adequate fluid and electrolyte intake. This can be achieved by oral rehydration therapy [drinking water with modest amounts of sugar and salts] or intravenously. Fever medicine may be necessary if the child has fever. Anti-diarrhoeal and anti-vomiting medications are generally not recommended.

Since both infections clear up by themselves, when should parents seek medical attention?

Symptoms like vomiting, diarrhoea and fever may be the onset of something more sinister, so always see a doctor early. This is especially important if your child’s vomiting is severe and he or she is unable to retain any fluid orally. Obviously, immediate medical attention is necessary if there are features of dehydration, such as a decrease in urine output, dry mucous membranes and a rapid heart rate.

How effective is the rotavirus vaccine?

Rotavirus in young children can be prevented by giving the rotavirus vaccine in early infancy. These vaccines are taken orally in two to three doses at monthly intervals and should be completed before 6 months of age. However, it should be noted that the vaccines do not totally prevent a rotavirus infection. Kids can still contract rotavirus, but after vaccination it will be significantly milder.

Photos: iStock

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