Help little ones fight tummy bugs

Winter is prime time for the rotavirus infection, the number one cause of children’s diarrhoea.

22 June 2012
by Karen Koch

Little stomachs are particularly susceptible to tummy bugs, so every mom needs to know how to cope when your munchkin falls prey to these nasty infections.

Children can have three or more episodes of diarrhoea every year and, while attacks can occur at any time, they are more prevalent from late March to August. The primary cause of winter diarrhoea is rotavirus – a highly contagious strain of gastroenteritis. Virtually every child will have at least one rotavirus infection in the first five years of life, but toddlers from six to 11 months of age are most vulnerable.

“Rotavirus is the one form of gastro that affects children from all socio-economic backgrounds and in every country worldwide,” says Dr Nicoletta Hay, a paediatrician based at Morningside Medi-Clinic, Sandton. According to the National Institute of Communicable Diseases, gastroenteritis kills up to six children in South Africa every day.

“The virus is passed from one person to another through contact with infected faeces,” says Dr Hay. “Children can transmit it when they forget to wash their hands before eating or after using the toilet. Touching a surface that has been contaminated and then touching the mouth area can result in infection.”

Rotavirus is also thought to be transmitted via droplets breathed out by the infected child. Water, food and surfaces can all become contaminated with rotavirus, leading to rapid outbreaks. Once exposed, infection takes around 48 hours to set in and normally starts with sudden vomiting that lasts for one or two days, as well as a mild fever and severe watery diarrhoea lasting up to five days.

Dehydration is the real risk of rotavirus when it comes to children. They can lose a lot of fluids in a very short space of time and, because of their small body size, are at higher risk of dehydration.

Symptoms of dehydration can include:

  • Fewer wet nappies, or dark yellow or brown urine.
  • No tears when your child cries.
  • A dry mouth or cracked lips.
  • Sunken eyes.

Call a doctor when your child:

  • Has diarrhoea or vomiting that lasts longer than a few days.
  • Vomits up blood, has bloody diarrhoea, or has severe stomach pain.
  • Hasn’t had anything to drink in a few hours, or can’t keep fluids down.
  • Hasn’t needed to urinate in the past six to eight hours (in older children), or hasn’t had a wet nappy for four to six hours (in babies and young children).

How is a rotavirus infection treated?

Treating dehydration: "The most important part of treating diarrhoea is to prevent dehydration," says Dr Hay. "Make sure your child drinks enough fluids. You’ll know that you are giving your child enough fluids when his or her urine looks pale yellow or clear, or when your baby has a normal amount of wet nappies."

Give your baby or young child an "oral rehydration solution", such as Rehidrat. "If your child is vomiting, you can try to give them a teaspoon of fluid every one to two minutes," recommends Dr Hay. Oral rehydration solutions work better than juice, fizzy or sugary drinks. In fact, these fluids can even worsen diarrhoea. If your baby is being breastfed, continue to breastfeed them.

Anti-diarrhoeal medications:

You shouldn’t give your child medicines to stop diarrhoea. These medicines can make the infection last longer.

  • Adsorbents: such as kaolin-pectin (e.g. Pectrolyte) can help bind digestive mucus and toxins and reduce water loss. They can be used in children aged three and upwards.
  • Probiotics: such as Lactobacillus (e.g. Probiflora, Reuteri, Interflora, Probiolex, Culturelle and Biopromulti), are live healthy flora, normally found in the gut, that help to fight off infections. Probiotics can help reduce the severity and duration of diarrhoea during an infection.
  • Anti-nausea medications: Your doctor may recommend an anti-nausea medication if your child can’t stop vomiting. Only suitable for children older than two.