How to stop the flow-on effects of gastro

Kinderling News & Features

Most of the time of gastro is viral and highly contagious. We know first hand, ‘cause we’ve been in that mess before. 

So - while it’s a little gross - let’s take a look at how we can prevent it and facilitate a speedy recovery. Dr Nat Caristo of the National Home Doctor Service gives her expert tips. 

Reasons for contagion 

With gastro (medically known as gastroenteritis), the whole family can get knocked over in quick succession. In schools, childcare centres and public swimming pools, it can spread quickly like a river of brown lava. How and why does it rip through so rapidly? 

1. Unawareness

“Most cases of gastro are caught by coming in contact with somebody else who has symptoms,” says Nat. “Unfortunately, the symptoms can be very mild or just beginning when you’ve been in contact with that person so they didn’t even realise they were coming down with gastro. Hence everybody comes down with the same illness.” 

2. Touch

“[Gastro] can just spread through touching, so if you’ve touched your hand onto something else, the virus remains alive,” says Nat. “Someone else comes along [and touches] that same surface, they eat something and they’ve ingested the virus as well. So you don’t actually have to have visibly contaminated surfaces for you to actually spread the virus.” 

Listen to Dr Natalie on Kinderling Conversation:

3. Lack of immunity 

Babies are vaccinated against one type of gastro with an oral vaccine, but unfortunately there are other types. 

“As parents, we often haven’t been exposed to the virus for many years, since we were kids ourselves. As a result, our immunity to these things is very reduced and makes us susceptible,” Nat explains. “So it really depends on how many times in the past you’ve had gastro as to whether or not you have the resistance against whatever is brought into the household.”

The symptoms of gastro

Typically, gastro starts with vomiting and runny poos.  There might be some associated tummy pain, too. The vomiting usually settles first but it can take up to 10 days for the diarrhoea to settle.   

“The main issue with gastro in children is dehydration,” Nat explains. “Because their bodies are so little, the amount of dehydration quickly escalates and they can become very sick quickly.” Signs to be aware of include drowsiness, less urination than normal, irritability and not drinking much. 

How should we care for a child with gastro?

“The most important thing is to keep their fluids up,” says Nat. Keep an eye on if they’re still passing nappies and whether or not they’re looking well and are their usual self. 

Nat notes it becomes more complicated for young babies and breastfeeding mums. Where possible, breast-fed babies should continue as normal. However if a mum contracts gastro, she says “their supply can drop quite quickly as well.”

“A breastfeeding mum suddenly doesn’t necessarily have the supply for their child and if their child gets sick, it's even worse. Thankfully there are alternatives, including oral rehydration solutions like hydralite [for children over six months of age].” There are iceblocks, jelly and liquid available. 

Nat says that formula can be used for breastfed children, but do not dilute it. Then aim to reintroduce the usual milk within 24 hours. She does recommend; “If your child is not taking their usual amounts of milk and are becoming dehydrated, they should see a doctor.” 

“If an older child is interested in eating, then I would start with something dry and plain, like toast, potatoes. Then gradually reintroducing their normal diet once they become well,” she says. 

Red flags to watch out for

If you see any of the following, consult your local doctor or hospital as soon as possible:

  • Prolonged vomiting
  • Signs of dehydration
  • Blood or mucous in vomit or poo
  • Green vomit
  • Ongoing tummy pain
  • Lethargy, listlessness or severe fatigue
  • High fevers
  • Unexpected symptoms, such as a headache 

How to prevent it

It’s highly important to maintain regular hand washing and keeping surfaces as clean as possible to prevent the virus spreading. 

“The usual recommendation is to keep them home at least 24 hours after the last episode of vomiting and diarrhoea,” Nat says.

This is just in case there’s a small amount of the virus lingering. Keeping them away from day care, school and swimming as long as possible, as hard as it is, is important to stop the spread.