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When the Stomach Flu Strikes

January 1, 2012 Saint Peter's Healthcare System Community Calendar Featured Article.

No matter what your age, just the thought of experiencing the stomach flu can make you queasy. The vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pains, cramps and even the fever that accompany the stomach flu can wear anyone down, but young children are the most vulnerable.

Elizabeth R Henry, M.D.

Elizabeth R Henry, M.D.

So ’tis the season to be wary—of the stomach viruses and bacteria that may be lurking in your kids’ schools, day care centers and wherever they go. Lumped together under the umbrella term gastroenteritis, these stomach bugs account for about 1.5 million doctor visits in the U.S. each year. Roughly 200,000 children need hospitalization, usually for dehydra- tion caused by excessive vomiting or diarrhea, and about 300 deaths a year are attributed to the illness.

The stomach flu, which usually lasts about five days, is caused by many viruses or bacteria. The most common winter culprit for children is the rotavirus, says Elizabeth R. Henry, M.D., a pediatrician affiliated with The Children’s Hospital at Saint Peter’s University Hospital and a partner with the New Brunswick Pediatric Group. “Like the influenza virus, this one thrives in cold, dry winter climates,” Dr. Henry says. “Although any age group, even adults, can get the rotavirus, the younger and smaller you are, the more prone you are to serious dehydration.”

When your child comes down with the bug, go see your child’s doctor. “Many things can cause these symptoms, so other possible causes such as food poisoning need to be ruled out,” according to Dr. Henry. When symptoms begin, it is critical to start rehydrating your child as soon as possible. “Use products like Pedialyte for small children and Gatorade for older kids, as opposed to fruit juice, because they contain electrolytes like sodium and potassium,” she notes. If kids immediately throw up liquids, try reducing the amount given to just a few ounces, but give it as often as they can handle it.

Signs of dehydration

The most serious consequence of stomach flu is dehydration, says Dr. Henry.
Warning signs of dehydration include:

  • dry, pasty mouth and cracked lips
  • few or no tears when crying
  • eyes that look sunken into the head
  • soft spot (fontanel) on top of baby’s head that looks sunken
  • lack of urine or small amount of dark yellow urine
  • dry, cool skin
  • lethargy or irritability
  • fatigue or dizziness in older children

“If you see any of these signs, consult your pediatrician,” says Dr. Henry. “ Your child may need an office evaluation or need to be sent to the hospital for intravenous rehydration.”

Preventing this flu

Preventing stomach flu is difficult. According to Dr. Henry there is an oral vaccine, but there is only a small window for administering this vaccine — between ages 2 months and 8 months. The vaccine is not effective in older children, and it does not offer lifetime immunity to infants. But it does protect those in whom rotavirus can cause severe dehydration.

Good hygiene is the only other preventive measure. As with other illnesses, hand washing is critical. “Hand washing has an impact on all infectious diseases,” says Dr. Henry. “Ask your child’s caretakers to wash often, and try to keep your kid’s hands clean at home and in school.”

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