What to Do If Your Child Has Stomach Flu

The stomach flu, known as infectious gastroenteritis, is a common condition that usually includes nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. While referred to as a “flu,” it is not related to the influenza virus and is most often caused by norovirus or rotavirus.

Stomach viruses like these are very common in children. They are highly contagious and can quickly spread through concentrated environments like schools or daycare centers. 

This article will describe the common symptoms of stomach viruses in children, treatments, and when to take your child to see a healthcare professional.

Home Call Nurse Using Sick Bag With Child At Home - stock photo

Thurtell

What Is Stomach Flu?

The stomach flu is caused by a contagious virus that causes nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. It can be spread by direct contact with a sick individual or through contaminated food, water, or surfaces. Because children frequently put their fingers and hands in their mouths, they are at an increased risk of contracting norovirus and rotavirus. 

Norovirus outbreaks are most common from November through April. Children are most likely to come down with rotavirus in the months of January to June. Common settings include daycare centers, schools, healthcare facilities, restaurants, catered events, and cruise ships. 

Each year, an estimated 19 million to 21 million Americans will have a case of norovirus. It is responsible for 465,000 emergency room visits and 2.27 million outpatient clinic visits each year. Most of these visits are for young children. Rotavirus leads to 200,000 emergency room visits and 400,000 outpatient clinic visits in children under 5 years old annually. 

Symptoms

Symptoms of the stomach flu usually develop about 12–48 hours after exposure to the virus. Most people experience symptoms of norovirus for about one to three days and rotavirus for three to eight days. Common symptoms include:

The stomach flu is caused by viruses that usually resolve on their own. Oftentimes, no medical treatment is needed. However, these viruses may lead to a medical emergency when a sick person becomes dehydrated due to vomiting and watery diarrhea. 

Treatment

The viruses that cause the stomach flu often need to run their course, and most people start to feel much better after a few days to a week. 

Medical

It’s important to note that there is no medication available to treat norovirus or rotavirus. However, children who become dehydrated may require medical intervention. Treatment for dehydration includes fluid replacement and stopping the symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea. 

Depending on how dehydrated your little one has become, a healthcare provider, including your child's pediatrician, may recommend giving intravenous (IV) fluids. Signs of dehydration include:

  • Decreased urination or number of wet diapers
  • Fatigue
  • Fussiness or irritability 
  • Crying without tears 
  • Feeling dizzy or light-headed
  • Dry mouth or throat

Home Remedies

The stomach flu is most often treated at home with rest and fluids. Encourage your child to rest as much as possible. Once your child is able to tolerate drinking liquids, encourage them to drink as often as they can.

Sports drinks may help to treat mild dehydration. If your child is dehydrated, they may need to drink their fluid replacement in the form of Pedialyte or another oral rehydration drink. Talk with a healthcare provider if you are unsure which drink to choose. 

Prevention

Norovirus and rotavirus are very contagious and cannot always be prevented. However, there are steps that you can take to lower your risk of being exposed. Preventive strategies include:

  • Handwashing: Encourage your children to frequently wash their hands, especially after using the bathroom and before eating. 
  • Disinfection: To kill these viruses, disinfect the surfaces in your home with a chlorine bleach solution that contains 5–25 tablespoons of household bleach per gallon of water. 
  • Cooking: When preparing food, always rinse fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating. Cook any shellfish and poultry completely, and never prepare food when you feel sick. 

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Call your primary healthcare provider or your child's pediatrician if you are concerned that your child is dehydrated. The medical staff can help you determine if your child needs to be seen and how to rehydrate them as quickly as possible.

Summary

The stomach flu is caused by very contagious viruses like norovirus and rotavirus. Common symptoms include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. The stomach flu is spread by contact with a sick person, contaminated food or drink, and surfaces. It can quickly spread through concentrated environments like school or daycare centers. Gastroenteritis is usually treated at home with rest and fluids. If you are concerned that your child is becoming dehydrated, talk with your healthcare provider. 

A Word From Verywell

Seeing your child sick is hard for any parent. It may be helpful to remember that the stomach flu is a common infection and usually resolves on its own. Encourage your child to rest as much as possible and help them replace lost fluids with broth or oral rehydration fluids. Don’t hesitate to call your healthcare provider if you are concerned about dehydration. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long does stomach flu last?

    The stomach flu caused by norovirus usually lasts about one to three days. Symptoms of rotavirus can last three to eight days. 

  • What should you eat with the stomach flu?

    When you or your child has the stomach flu, start with clear liquids like clear soda, broth, or electrolyte replacement drinks. Once you can tolerate clear liquids, add in complex carbohydrates like cooked potatoes or whole-grain toast. 

  • How long is the stomach flu contagious?

    The stomach flu is very contagious. A person can expect to develop symptoms about 12–48 hours after being exposed. A person with rotavirus is contagious before they develop symptoms and up to three days after symptoms resolve. 

  • What can I eat after the stomach flu?

    Once you start feeling better after the stomach flu, continue to drink clear liquids to replace the fluids you lost through vomiting and diarrhea. Eat bland carbohydrates like potatoes, whole grain bread, and brown rice. 

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10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rotavirus.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Norovirus.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common settings of norovirus outbreaks.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Burden of norovirus illness in the U.S.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rotavirus in the U.S.

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The symptoms of norovirus.

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Treatment of rotavirus.

  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How you treat norovirus.

  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Preventing norovirus.

  10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Transmission of rotavirus.