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Stomachaches, Diarrhea and Vomiting

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Children often experience gastrointestinal symptoms including stomachaches, vomiting and diarrhea. A variety of conditions can cause these symptoms including bad food choices or reactions to new medication. However, most of the time, gastrointestinal symptoms are caused by a viral infection of the stomach or the intestines. Even though many people refer to these symptoms as "stomach flu," they are not caused by influenza (e.g., the flu virus), but rather by a different virus. Because these ailments are usually caused by a virus, there is no cure readily available. Antibiotics won't help decrease symptoms. Instead, symptoms generally just need to run their course.

sick teenThere are many things parents can do to keep their children comfortable during the course of their upset stomach. One of the most important considerations is to prevent children from getting dehydrated by offering them appropriate liquids. Good choices for this purpose include water, herbal teas, diluted sports drinks, and specially designed children's hydration formulas available in the drug store in liquid or freezer pop form. Sugary sodas and juices are not particularly good hydration choices as they may aggravate an already upset system. Any fluids provided should be consumed with small sips.

When children start to feel hungry again, it's a good sign that they're ready to resume eating. However, caregivers should be careful to allow an aggravated digestive system some time to rest and recover. Waiting 12-24 hours after the last bout of vomiting or diarrhea before eating is a good rule of thumb. Furthermore, the first foods that children eat should be bland and easy to digest. Starchy foods, including crackers, plain rice, applesauce, bananas, soup broth with noodles, and mashed potatoes are reasonable choices to offer. Foods containing a lot of fat (e.g., meat), a lot of fiber (e.g., vegetables), or a lot of sugar (e.g., cookies) should be avoided as they may aggravate children's digestive system in the short term. However, these more substantial and tasty choices can be reasonably added back into children's diet after a day or so without symptoms has passed.

Caregivers should not hesitate to contact their children's doctor if they have any concerns during their children's period of gastrointestinal distress. Parents should contact the doctor immediately if the child vomits blood or has a bloody stool, reports excruciating or sharp stomach pains, vomits for more than several hours in a row, or experiences diarrhea lasting longer than a few days. In addition, parents should be concerned about the possibility of dehydration if they note children are losing more fluids through vomiting and/or diarrhea than they are able to drink and to keep down. A doctor should be consulted in the event children cannot keep down fluids for more than a day.