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The Truth About Stomach Flu

It’s not really the flu, but gastroenteritis.
By Amanda Gardner
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Roy Benaroch, MD

If your child suddenly has an attack of diarrhea and vomiting, and he complains of a stomachache, you may think to yourself, "stomach flu."

No, not really.

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What's often called "stomach flu" is gastroenteritis, an infection of the stomach and intestines. The flu, or influenza, is different. It causes fevers, sore throats, runny noses, and general aches and pains. It usually does not cause stomach problems.

Viral infections are the usual cause of gastroenteritis. Bacteria can sometimes bring it on.

The sickness usually passes in about 10 days without medication. The first few days tend to be the worst, but you can take steps to help your child get through this tough time.


Give lots of fluid. The biggest danger from gastroenteritis is dehydration. Your child's body loses more fluids than it takes in. So, the most important thing you can do is keep your child hydrated, says Andrew Nowalk, MD, PhD. He's an assistant professor of pediatrics at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.

Not just any fluid will do. Water is good, but in some cases, it may not be enough. It won't replace the important electrolytes (salt and minerals) your child's body loses when it's dehydrated.

Drinks that do replace salt and minerals are called electrolyte solutions, or oral rehydration solutions. You can buy them at your local drug store. They can even be bottle-fed to infants.

Some sports drinks promise to replace electrolytes as well. They have a lot of sugar, but are okay for most school-age children and teenagers. They're not a good idea for very young children, though, says Peggy Pelish, PhD. She's a pediatric nurse practitioner with the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Nursing.

Keep children away from milk. It can make stomach problems worse. If you're the parent of a young baby, talk with your doctor about breastfeeding or formula.

Drinks that have a lot of acid (orange juice) or caffeine can also cause belly problems.

Too much of even the right kind of liquid can make vomiting worse, so take it slow at first. Try 1 teaspoon every 4 to 5 minutes, Nowalk says.

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