Gastroenteritis in children 

Introduction 

Diarrhoea

Diarrhoea is the passing of watery stools more than is normal for you. It is often a symptom of an infection or long-term condition. In this video, Dr Rupal Shah explains the most common causes of diarrhoea and the effects it can have on your body.

Media last reviewed: 30/04/2013

Next review due: 30/04/2015

Rotavirus vaccine

An oral vaccine for babies protects against rotavirus infection, a common cause of diarrhoea and sickness

Gastroenteritis is inflammation of the stomach and bowel. The most common cause is a viral or bacterial infection.

The illness usually lasts for three to five days, and the two most common symptoms are diarrhoea and vomiting.

Read more about the symptoms of gastroenteritis.

What causes gastroenteritis?

Gastroenteritis can have a number of possible causes, including a norovirus infection or food poisoning. However, rotavirus is the leading cause in children.

A rotavirus is an infection of the stomach and bowel. It is spread when a child who is infected does not wash their hands properly after going to the toilet.

If the child leaves tiny samples of infected faeces on surfaces or utensils, they can be picked up by another child. Small droplets of infected faeces can also be carried in the air, which children can breathe in.

This section is about gastroenteritis in children. Read more about gastroenteritis in adults.

When to see your GP

In most cases, gastroenteritis does not need to be diagnosed because the illness usually clears up without treatment.

You should see your GP if:  

  • Your child has recently been abroad. They may have acquired a more serious type of infection, for example one caused by a parasite.
  • Their diarrhoea symptoms do not improve after seven days.
  • They have persistent vomiting without diarrhoea. 
  • They have symptoms that are not usually associated with gastroenteritis.
  • There is blood or mucus in their stools.
  • Your child has a weakened immune system due to a health condition, such as acute leukaemia, or as a side effect of a medical treatment, such as chemotherapy.

Read more about diagnosing gastroenteritis.

Treating gastroenteritis

Most cases of gastroenteritis in children are mild and usually pass within three to five days without the need for treatment.

However, young children, particularly those under two years of age, are at risk of dehydration, so it is very important that they drink plenty of fluids.

In severe cases of gastroenteritis, where there has been significant fluid loss, hospital treatment may be required so that fluid can be replaced intravenously (directly into a vein).

In England, it is estimated that only 1.5% of children with gastroenteritis will require treatment in hospital.

Read more about treating gastroenteritis.

Preventing gastroenteritis

As gastroenteritis can be very infectious, it is important to take steps to prevent it spreading from your child to other children. You should:

  • Encourage your child to wash their hands properly after going to toilet and before eating.
  • Clean the potty or toilet thoroughly using disinfectant after each episode of diarrhoea and vomiting, making sure that you also clean the handle and seat.
  • Wash your hands regularly, particularly after changing a nappy or cleaning a potty.
  • Don't share your child’s towels, flannels, cutlery or eating utensils with other members of your household.
  • Don't allow your child to return to nursery or school until 48 hours have passed since their last episode of diarrhoea and vomiting.
  • Don't allow your child to go swimming in a pool for the first two weeks after their last episode of diarrhoea. Even though they won't have symptoms, research has found that the rotavirus can spread to other children through pool water.

Read more about preventing gastroenteritis.

Vaccination

From July 1 2013, all babies of two and three months of age are able to be vaccinated against rotavirus. The new vaccine is given as drops into the baby's mouth.

The vaccine will protect them against rotavirus throughout their childhood.

Read more about rotavirus vaccination.

Who is affected?

Rotavirus gastroenteritis is very common in children. It is estimated that every child will have at least one rotavirus infection before the age of five. Most infections occur among children aged between three months and three years old.

The first rotavirus infection tends to be the most severe because the body builds up immunity (resistance) to the virus afterwards. This is why these types of infections are extremely rare in adults.

Page last reviewed: 09/05/2012

Next review due: 09/05/2014

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Comments

The 5 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

breenuh said on 01 February 2014

My 3 year old has been vomiting for 7 days. He had diarrhea for 5 of those. Im so scared. Hes lost a lot of weight. I have a 7 and 9 year old who've never gone through this. Its frustrating when I can't help him. I took him to the doctor and I talk to his doctor every other day but our pediatrician isn't doing anything. I think I need to see a GP.

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misschris said on 26 January 2013

88My 7yr old daugter has been feeling sick and having diarrohea for 12 day, just thought it would pass after a few days,
sent her back to school Thurs thought she was on the mend.
In the last week she has been passing a lot of wind.
Has been sick twice beginng of this week.

All week have avoided green vegetables so not to work the somach. kept to carbs potatoes, bread simple chicken & fish.
But tonight she felt sick & her tummy felt upside down


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shellbell77 said on 10 November 2012

My 9 month old baby boy started with a common cold 3weeks ago that lasted roughly 8/9 days, he then started with crionic diarrhoea! We went through roughly 15 nappies in less than 24hours. After two days of this he started beung sick, this passed within 24hours but the diarrhoea continued and progressively got worse. I took him to my GP who said its just a virus and will pass. On day 7 we took him back again and was told I'm an over protective mum and there is nothing wrong with him because he was lively in himself. After 11 days I took him back yet again as he us now loosing weight and no improvement buy was told they couldn't do anything for him even though he was in distress at the time but they would take a stool sample. We are still waiting the results and we are now day 13 and still no better. I coukd cry gor him as his little bottom is starting to get dire with the soiled nappies and I have no idea what to do. I have two very much older children who never experienced any thing like this so I'm not neortic or inexperienced.

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GaryD said on 30 August 2012

My 8 year old has had gastroenteritis for over three weeks now. It started as a classic 'tummy bug' with loose stools, tummy pain, nausea and a low grade fever, but it hasn't gone away. She still has the nausea and low grade fever, but her tummy pain is much better and her stools are normal now.

We've been told that it was viral, that it could be excess acid, and that it is abdominal migraine... but there is no consistency in the doctors and explanations that we have been given. Blood tests come back normal, as do the stool tests, but there is definitely something wrong.

We're trying to be rational about this but she is not the same child she was 4 weeks ago, and we're not sure what to do next. We're afraid that it could be bacterial or parasitic or need some treatment, but we're not getting any so far (other than antacids). What do we do?

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LaraJoy77 said on 10 January 2012

If a 2 year old child vomits once after drinking a glass of water, and an hour later shows signs of hunger, eats his usual three course dinner, and has no further episodes of vomitting or signs of being unwell, is back to his happy self, can this be classified as gastroenteritis? I am under the impression that a diagnosis of Gastroenteritis would require it to be more than one occurrence, usually lasting 24hrs or more.

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Rotavirus vaccine

An oral vaccine for babies protects against rotavirus infection, a common cause of diarrhoea and sickness

Infectious illnesses in children

Symptoms to look out for if you're concerned your child may have an infectious illness