What every parent needs to know about the stomach bug

In workplaces, classrooms, daycare centers and on public transportation, the germs that cause the stomach bug can spread quickly, especially during the winter months. While we can’t avoid these places, we can do our best to prevent the spread of germs and, in the event that you or your child does get sick, treat the illness at home.

Dr. Ijeoma Madueke, a primary care provider at Brigham and Women’s Primary Physicians at Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital says, “The ‘stomach bug’ or ‘stomach flu’ is used to describe an illness that most commonly includes vomiting and diarrhea. Medically, this is referred to as gastroenteritis.”

The most common cause of gastroenteritis is one of several viruses. These germs spread from person to person, sometimes through objects such as telephones, door handles and anything else that multiple hands may touch. “One particular virus that we hear about in the news is Norovirus. Norovirus is often responsible for outbreaks in school classrooms or workplaces since it is very contagious and can be especially severe with symptoms lasting for three days or more,” says Dr. Madueke. Symptoms of gastroenteritis can include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain, loss of appetite, fever, tiredness and just not feeling well.  

Dr. Madueke explains the things every parent needs to know about gastroenteritis: 

1. Prevention

All of the viruses that cause the stomach bug are highly contagious. Once one person in a daycare, school or office catches it, it’s not unusual to see many others also get sick. If your child is healthy and not sick, the most important thing to do is to keep him/her that way. This can be accomplished with frequent hand washing. This can be with either soap and water or an alcohol-based rub such as Purell. Just make sure that, whatever you choose, your child learns how to do it correctly. Hands should be washed frequently, including after using the restroom, after coughing or sneezing, before eating and any time they look dirty. One common place to catch stomach bug germs is in bowls of food such as fruit, candy or cookies that are not individually wrapped. Give your child wrapped treats and ask him/her to avoid these bowls of food. If you or your child is sick, you can help keep others from getting sick by keeping your child home from school or staying home from work and not returning until at least 24 hours after the last symptom.   

2. Treatment at home

Since the stomach bug is most often caused by a virus, antibiotics (drugs that fight bacteria) will not help your child get better and treatment can usually be managed at home. The most important thing is to keep your child hydrated. If he/she can drink even a little bit, you often can avoid an emergency room visit by giving a few sips of liquid (up to an ounce at a time) a couple of times an hour. The best liquids include light, clear fluids such as ginger ale, chicken or vegetable broth and sports drinks such as Pedialyte, Gatorade or Powerade as these provide the water, sugar and salts that your child’s body needs. If your child has a fever or is irritable or fussy, particularly from pain, you can also try giving acetaminophen, more commonly known as Tylenol. It is best to avoid other over the counter medicines such as Immodium or Pepto Bismol since they have not been proven to help children and may even be harmful.

3. When to call your doctor

Although a virus is the most common cause of nausea and vomiting in the winter months in both children and adults, sometimes these symptoms can mean something more serious. Lately we have been seeing stomach upset as a symptom of COVID-19. If stomach upset is accompanied by fever, cough or loss of taste or smell, you should be tested for COVID-19 right away. Other things that might clue you in to something more worrisome than the stomach bug are symptoms that last longer than three to five days and aren’t improving, bloody diarrhea, a high fever, severe belly pain, fussiness that does not improve with Tylenol or vomiting that won’t stop. And sometimes, even if it is just the stomach bug, you or your child might need extra treatment if you get very sick.

The stomach bug is usually just a harmless bug that makes you and your family miserable for a few days. However, symptoms of a stomach bug can sometimes mean something more serious, especially in those who have chronic illnesses. If you’re ever in doubt, call your primary care provider. He/she will help you determine whether this is something you can treat at home or if you need to see your doctor or even go to the emergency room.

Do you need a primary care provider? Dr. Madueke is currently accepting new patients. To make an appointment, call Brigham and Women’s Primary Physicians at Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital at 617-983-7300.

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