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Gastroenteritis in children

24 Oct 2008 9:01 PM - Dr Roger Morris

Gastroenteritis is a very common illness in infants and children. It is most commonly caused by viruses that infect the bowel. It tends to be more common during the winter months. In most cases the infection begins with vomiting and loss of appetite. Following on from this is usually the development of watery diarrhoea, abdominal pain and fever. The vomiting may last for 3 or 4 days and the diarrhoea may persist for more than a week. Prolonged fever, severe abdominal pain and bloody diarrhoea may indicate a bacterial cause for gastroenteritis, which should be checked by a doctor, especially in infants and young babies. Viral gastroenteritis is very infectious and isolation of the affected child from other family members, day-care facilities and schools is important. Frequent hand-washing after toileting, nappy changes and prior to preparing food is absolutely vital to reduce transmission to other people. Most children recover quickly from gastro without any specific treatment, but some children may need medical attention for dehydration (especially infants and babies). Encouraging regular sips of oral fluids (especially electrolyte solutions available from pharmacies) is important to reduce the risk of dehydration. Children are unable to use anti-vomiting and anti-diarrhoeal medications prescribed for adults due to side effects. There are a few newer medications available that may be useful in school age children to reduce vomiting, but these are not widely available at all medical practices. Breast milk is the best rehydration fluid for breastfed babies.

Be sure to seek medical advice should you child exhibit the following:

  1. Infants less than 6 months old
  2. Other chronic health problem
  3. Poor oral fluid intake
  4. Ongoing vomiting, fever, rash, lethargy or drowsiness
  5. Blood or mucous in the stool
  6. Severe abdominal pain, especially with green (bile-stained) vomit
  7. Persistent high fevers, headache, neck stiffness
  8. Your child is slow to improve

The most common virus implicated in gastroenteritis, especially in children less than two years old, is rotavirus. This virus is very common and highly infectious, and commonly occurs in epidemics during winter. In fact, most children have been infected by rotavirus by the time they reach 2 years old. Vomiting and diarrhoea can be quite severe and each year in Australia, 2 or 3 children die from complications. More than 10,000 children are admitted to hospitals in Australia every year with rotavirus infection. Thankfully there are now oral vaccines available to protect against the commonest strains of rotavirus. These vaccines are very effective and well tested to prove their safety and tolerability. The government now funds these vaccines as part of the routine childhood immunisation schedule for infants less than 6 months of age. These vaccines are not approved for use in children older than 6 months.]

Source: http://www.chw.edu.au/parents/factsheets/pdf/gastroenteritis.pdf