How to Treat Your Child's Stomach Virus

Mother checking child's temperature

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Here’s a familiar scene: your kids are playing happily, running around at top speed, and everything seems completely normal. Then, with zero warning, one of them vomits everywhere. 

It’s not anyone’s favorite parenting moment: the dreaded stomach flu that seemingly comes from nowhere and takes the whole family down before you know what’s hit you. It's an icky illness, but there are a few things you can do to keep your kids comfortable (and well!) when it comes knocking.

What is the Stomach Flu? 

First, it’s not actually a flu at all. “Most cases of ‘stomach flu’ are caused by viruses," says Jamie S. Kondis, MD, Associate Professor of Pediatrics for Washington University School of Medicine at St. Louis Children's Hospital. "Typically, the child will receive a diagnosis of viral gastroenteritis.” Viral gastroenteritis means there is inflammation, swelling, and irritation in the lining of your gastrointestinal tract. While this can be caused by a virus, that isn't always the case. The seasonal flu, while also caused by a viral infection, results in inflammation of the respiratory system.

Stomach flu symptoms tend to start without much warning at all and include profuse vomiting, followed by diarrhea, and sometimes, a low-grade fever. Young kids may not seem overly ill at first, but vomiting related to viral gastroenteritis can hit quickly and violently. Your little one may vomit many times during the first phase of the illness, but this typically tapers off relatively quickly—usually within a few days.

“If your child has more severe symptoms, such as dehydration (characterized by fewer than two wet diapers or not urinating at least two times in 24 hours), blood in their diarrhea or vomit, bright green colored vomit, or high fever for several days, this could indicate a more serious bacterial infection,” says Dr. Kondis. This requires a trip to the doctor. 

Stomach Viruses: When to Worry

If you're wondering how to determine whether your little one’s symptoms are simply unpleasant or a cause for concern, look for the following, says Dr. Kondis: 

  • High fever. This can be indicative of a bacterial infection.
  • Visible blood in diarrhea or vomit. This can also indicate a bacterial infection.
  • Bright green-colored vomit. This can occur with excessive vomiting, but can also be indicative of a bowel obstruction.
  • Vomiting with no diarrhea. This could indicate a different gastrointestinal illness, like appendicitis.
  • Lack of urination/wet diapers. This could indicate your child is becoming dehydrated, which is one of the most common concerns about the stomach virus.

How To Treat a Stomach Virus

Despite its nasty nature, most kids recover from the stomach virus without any complications, and there isn’t much you need to do while they’re ill. Generally speaking, dehydration is the biggest concern related to gastroenteritis. “When a child is vomiting, you want to avoid dehydration," says Dr. Kondis, "So encourage them to drink small amounts of an electrolyte-containing drink like Gatorade or Pedialyte.”

On the other hand, it's best to avoid food until your child is more likely to tolerate it. “For the first 24 hours or so, it is best to keep the child from eating solid foods, because it will likely just cause them to vomit,” says Dr. Kondis. Once you start to see the vomiting subside, and when your child tells you they’re feeling hungry, it’s best to start slow.

Introduce a dry food without strong flavors. Saltine crackers, white rice, or even a popsicle are a great place to start. Soon after, Dr. Kondis says it’s fine to allow children to eat whatever they feel like they can eat, including fruits, vegetables, yogurt, and carbohydrates.

How to Stop a Stomach Virus from Spreading

Most strains of the virus are extremely contagious. That means your entire family can very quickly get sick. If you are lucky enough to have only one person in the family sick before it spreads, the best thing you can do to protect others is to isolate the sick individual, and then clean as best as you can, says Dr. Kondis. The incubation period for the common stomach virus is between 12 and 48 hours.

“Wash hands frequently," she says. "Some viruses that cause stomach flu, such as Norovirus, can actually survive hand sanitizer, so it is best to wash with soap and water. Also wash bedding, towels, and other things that children are using while they are sick."

And be sure to wash any surfaces that your child comes into contact with while they're sick. "Some viruses can survive on hard surfaces for days," Dr. Kondis elaborates. "Consider using a diluted bleach solution in addition to soap and water.” Pay attention to commonly touched surfaces like doorknobs, sink faucets, and toilet seats and handles. Anything that comes into contact with even the smallest amount of infected bodily fluid (of which there are plenty when the stomach virus hits) is fair game for spreading the virus.

If your child throws up on the floor, consider wearing a face mask and gloves when tackling the clean-up task. Use a substance that dries the solid waste, making it easier to pick up without splashing everywhere, which can increase the likelihood of spreading germs. 

A Word From Verywell

While the stomach flu is no fun, most children recover fully within a few days. The best thing you can do is keep your child comfortable and hydrated while they ride out the illness. You should also pay special attention to keeping your house clean and sanitized in an effort to prevent the spread to other family members.

3 Sources
Verywell Family 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. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Understanding Viral Gastroenteritis.

  2. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About Flu.

  3. Nemours KidsHealth. Gastroenteritis (Stomach Flu).

By Christin Perry
Christin Perry is a freelance writer and editor. Her work has been published in The Bump, The Knot, Scary Mommy, LittleThings, Parents, Qeepsake, and more. She has experience writing email marketing campaigns, website copy, and SEO-optimized content. Christin is also a mom of three.