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

Diarrhoea and vomiting in children

What causes diarrhoea and vomiting in children and how to treat it

Gastroenteritis is a common condition where the stomach and bowel become inflamed. It is usually caused by a viral or bacterial infection.

The two main symptoms of gastroenteritis are diarrhoea and vomiting, which usually clear up in around five to seven days.

Read more about the symptoms of gastroenteritis.

What causes gastroenteritis?

The most common cause of gastroenteritis in children is a virus called the rotavirus. This virus is passed out in the stools (faeces) of someone with the infection. It can be transferred to food, objects and surfaces if the infected person doesn't wash their hands after going to the toilet.

The infection is usually then passed to someone else when they either eat contaminated food or touch a contaminated object or surface and then touch their mouth.

Young children are particularly vulnerable to this infection because they often forget to wash their hands after going to the toilet or before eating, and they have not yet built up a resistance to the rotavirus.

It's estimated that almost every child will have at least one rotavirus infection before the age of five and many children will have several episodes a year. Most infections occur among children under four years old.

Gastroenteritis can also have a number of other causes, including a norovirus infection or food poisoning, although these are more common in adults. Read more about gastroenteritis in adults.

When to see your GP

In most cases, gastroenteritis does not need to be diagnosed, as the illness usually goes away without treatment.

However, you should see your GP if your child:  

If your GP is unavailable, contact your local out-of-hours service or NHS 111 for advice.

Read more about diagnosing gastroenteritis.

Treating gastroenteritis

Most cases of gastroenteritis in children are mild and pass within five to seven days without any specific treatment.

However, young children – particularly those less than one year old – are at risk of dehydration, so it is very important that they drink plenty of fluids. In some cases, special oral rehydration solutions may be recommended. 

In severe cases where there has been significant fluid loss, hospital treatment may be needed so that fluid can be replaced through a tube inserted down the nose (nasogastric tube) or directly into a vein (intravenously). However, this is only needed in very rare cases.

Read more about treating gastroenteritis.

Preventing gastroenteritis

As gastroenteritis is easily spread, it's important to take steps to prevent it spreading from your child to other children by:

  • encouraging your child to wash their hands properly after going to the toilet and before eating
  • cleaning the potty or toilet thoroughly using disinfectant after each episode of diarrhoea and vomiting, making sure you clean the seat and handle
  • washing your hands regularly, particularly after changing a nappy or cleaning a potty
  • not sharing your child's towels, flannels, cutlery or eating utensils with other members of your household
  • not allowing your child to return to nursery or school until at least 48 hours after their last episode of diarrhoea or vomiting

There is also a rotavirus vaccination that is included in the routine childhood vaccination schedule for children aged two to three months, which can help reduce your child's risk of developing gastroenteritis.

Read more about preventing gastroenteritis.

Page last reviewed: 28/03/2014

Next review due: 28/03/2016

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The 6 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

CromieD said on 07 May 2014

Helpful Advice. - My wee boy is 4 yrs 6 mths. When he was 8 weeks old, he had a temperature, was projectile vomiting and had diarrhea. I contacted the Doctor on call who asked me to hold off for a couple of hours to see how he got on. Bear in mind that my son was 8 weeks old. He had been crying for what seemed like forever and just wasn't himself. When he started becoming almost listless, I contacted an ambulance. They called at the house and by that stage, he was alert but still not right. The paramedics didn't want to take him to casualty as it was very late on a Friday night. They notifed the doctor on call who called out at the house a short time later and after checking him over, wanted to leave him overnight to see if he improved - if not, I was to bring him to casualty where they would be waiting to admit him to the peadiatric ward. Half an hour later and more projectile vomiting, we rushed to the hospital ourselves. The nurse who took him from me asked me if I had not realised my child had had a temperature! It was then that I burst into tears - I had been trying for 4 hours to get someone to look at my son. He was rushed up to the peadiatric ward where the doctors worked for a good 20 minutes trying to get a line into him. They tried both hands and feet but his wee veins were shutting down due to dehydration. He was in hospital for 3 days and was diagnosed with Rotavirus. My advice - this was a horrific experience and one which I will never forget. If your child experiences symptoms like these or those listed on the NHS website - DO NOT take no for an answer. Get your child checked out. This potentially could have been a more serious outcome for us and thankfully because of our continual persistance, our son got through this illness.

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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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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