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Diarrhoea and vomiting

What causes diarrhoea and vomiting?

Children may develop diarrhoea or vomiting for a variety of reasons. Most commonly it is due to gastroenteritis. This is usually a viral infection ‘stomach bug’. Vomiting usually lasts for 1 to 2 days but diarrhoea can persist for 5 to 7 days. Tummy pains (abdominal cramps) and high temperature (fever) may also occur.

How is it treated?

Most children get better without any specific treatment and can be safely managed at home. The most important thing you can do is to ensure that your child is receiving plenty of drinks frequently to replace the fluid they have lost. This will not stop the diarrhoea and vomiting but should prevent your child from becoming dehydrated. Water or dilute squash are good but if your child will tolerate it, oral rehydration therapy like Dioralyte is ideal. This can be obtained from the pharmacy and can be flavoured by adding squash.

If vomiting is persistent, small frequent sipsor feeds are best. Try giving small amounts (1 to 2 spoonfuls or using a syringe) every 5 to 10 minutes as fluids will stay down better that way.

What do I do if my baby is breast-fed?

Continue to breastfeed. Try to increase the length and frequency of feeds. Extra fluid (water or Dioralyte) should also be offered between feeds.

What do I do if my baby is formula fed?   

Continue formula feeds. Make the feed up as normal. Extra fluid (water or Dioralyte) should also be offered between feeds.

When should I give food to my child?

Return to normal diet as soon as your child allows. However, if your child does not want to eat that’s fine. Drinks are the most important and food can wait until their appetite returns. You do not need to avoid or include different foods to usual.

What about dehydration?

The most important complication of diarrhoea and vomiting is dehydration. Occasionally children need  to be admitted to hospital for fluid to be given either through a tube up their nose or a drip in their vein.

How do I know if my child is dehydrated?

The following are warning signs of dehydration:

  • Profuse vomiting (unable to keep any fluid down)
  • Going 10 hours without passing urine or fewer wet nappies
  • When the skin is pinched gently it stays up for a second or two
  • Sleepy or floppy child
  • Sunken eyes or shadows under the eyes
  • Soft spot in the top of babies head is sunken more than usual
  • Changed breathing, either faster or slower and deeper
  • Dry mouth, tongue and lips or no tears

If you are worried that your child is showing any of these signs then seek help by calling NHS 111 for advice or contacting your GP.

Are there any other treatments I can give?

Give paracetamol (Calpol) to ease fever, headache or stomach pains. Medicine to stop diarrhoea or vomiting is not usually needed and can cause more problems.

Does my child need any tests?

Tests are not usually needed in the majority of cases. If diarrhoea persists for more than 7 days or has blood in it at any time, a sample may be needed to send to the laboratory to investigate for unusual ‘bugs’.

Does my child need antibiotics?

No. Most cases of diarrhoea and vomiting do not require antibiotics. Very occasionally antibiotics are sometimes needed when it is it is caused by an unusual bug.

What can I do to prevent my child from getting it again?

Good hygiene helps to prevent gastroenteritis. Always wash your hands and teach your child to wash theirs, especially after going to the toilet (and after changing nappies) and before touching food.

Make sure you store, prepare and cook all food correctly. Always reheat food thoroughly to kill any bacteria (bugs) present.

When your child has gastroenteritis keep them away from other children if possible as the illness is easily spread from child to child. Children should stay off nursery or school until they’ve not been sick or had diarrhoea for 48 hours.

If you want to find more advice on common childhood illnesses or health information related to childhood the Healthier Together website (South Yorkshire) can be found here:

Home :: Healthier Together (sybhealthiertogether.nhs.uk)

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Please note: this is a generic information sheet relating to care at Sheffield Children’s NHS FT. These details may not reflect treatment at other hospitals. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professionals’ instructions. If this resource relates to medicines, please read it alongside the medicine manufacturer’s patient information leaflet. If this information has been translated into another language from English, efforts have been made to maintain accuracy, but there may still be some translation errors. If you are unsure about any of the guidance in this resource or have specific questions about how it relates to your child, always ask your healthcare professional for further advice.

Resource number: ED3

Resource Type: Article

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