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Stomach flu, also known as gastroenteritis, is an intestinal infection that affects the digestive system and causes acute diarrhea. It can be caused by a variety of bacteria and viruses. In children, most of the cases of infection are caused by rotavirus and adenovirus. It's estimated that this disease is one of the most important factors for high mortality rate among infants and children below five years of age worldwide.

Causes

Stomach flu is caused by a variety of bacteria and viruses, which damage the cells in the small intestine. This damage causes fluid leakage in cells and eventually leads to watery diarrhea. The most common virus responsible for stomach flu in children is rotavirus. Its symptoms begin to appear a day or two after exposure. It causes vomiting and water diarrhea, which continues for 3 - 8 days. It is characterized by fever and abdominal pain. This virus can also infect adults who come in contact with the infected child. In adults, the symptoms are comparatively mild. Rotavirus infections are most commonly noticed in the United States between November and April.

Other viruses which can trigger stomach flu include adenovirus and astrovirus. Adenovirus mainly affects children below the age of 2 years. The symptoms, which start appearing a week after the exposure, are quite similar to those of infection caused by other viruses. Adenovirus infection can occur throughout the year. Astrovirus mainly infects infants, young children, and elderly people. Its symptoms include diarrhea and vomiting, which can be noticed within three days of exposure. Incidence of stomach flu caused by this virus is mostly seen in winter.

Calicivirus and norovirus can cause infection in people of all ages. Noroviruses can even trigger a stomach flu epidemic. It is observed to occur mostly from October to April. Besides diarrhea and vomiting, its symptoms include fatigue, headache, and muscle ache. These symptoms appear within the first three days of exposure.

Symptoms

The symptoms of stomach flu may start appearing between the 1st and 10th day after exposure. The period between exposure to the time when the symptoms start appearing is called the incubation period. The virus or bacteria that is responsible for causing stomach flu, can multiply within the intestine. The common symptoms include diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. It may cause stomach cramps leading to severe pain.

The patient may also get dehydrated due to water loss triggered by diarrhea. The child also shows signs of fever and experiences chills, headache, and muscle ache. He may also start feeling weak and avoid eating food. As the symptoms are quite similar to other infections, it is difficult for a person without medical background to judge whether or not a child is suffering from stomach flu.

Treatment

Due to the lack of medicines which can kill the virus causing this disease, its treatment is mainly focused on providing supportive care. Oral rehydration therapy is considered most effective. Drinking oral rehydration fluids (ORF), juice, or water helps to tackle dehydration, which can be a major threat to children, considering their small size. Oral rehydration solutions can help by replacing lost fluids, minerals, and salts.

Vomiting may act as a hindrance, when it comes to fluid intake. This problem can be countered by sipping small amounts of liquid or sucking on an ice chip. Solid or mashed food can be reintroduced in the diet gradually, starting with easy-to-digest foods like toast, apples, bananas, or rice. Medical evaluation becomes a necessity in severe cases, as the treatment may include using an intravenous (IV) line for direct replacement of body fluids through the veins.

Although it is not a serious illness, it can prove to be life-threatening―especially for infants and small children, as they are unable to care for themselves. Their fluid intake capacity is hampered due to the disease, so it's very important to ensure that the infected child gets proper care. Hospitalization is always a good idea. It ensures proper medical attention from experts.