Diarrhoea and sickness in children

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.

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