Self-care, children

Gastroenteritis in young children

Magsjuka hos små barn - engelska

Vomiting and diarrhoea are the most common symptoms in children with gastroenteritis caused by a virus. The illness is almost always harmless and passes within a couple of days. It is important that the child takes on fluids, particularly if he or she has severe diarrhoea. This applies in particular to children under the age of one year.

Both adults and children can suffer from gastroenteritis. This information is about gastroenteritis in children who are six years old or younger.

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Right now, the corona virus is spreading. This means that the recommendations in this translated text do not always apply.


It is common for children with gastroenteritis to

  • vomit
  • suffer from diarrhoea
  • feel unwell
  • experience stomach pains
  • have a fever
  • become tired and feeble
  • not want to eat.

The symptoms often develop rapidly a few days after the child has been infected. Vomiting usually stops within a day or two. The diarrhoea can last longer, sometimes up to a week.

Gastroenteritis is most common during the winter months, when people spend more time in closer proximity indoors. You can also contract gastroenteritis from tap water containing bacteria, parasites or viruses, and from poorly prepared food, often after having been abroad.

When should I seek medical care?

Call a health centre or call 1177 for healthcare advice if the child has one or more of the following symptoms:

  • The child is under six months old and has vomiting and diarrhoea.
  • The child’s condition has not improved within 24 hours.
  • The child seems healthy, but their stools continue to be loose more than two weeks after gastroenteritis.
  • The child has a chronic illness and you are not sure if medical care is needed.

If the child is vomiting and unable to retain any fluids and at the same time is suffering from severe diarrhoea, there is an increased risk of the child not getting enough fluid. This can lead to the child becoming dehydrated. This is a serious condition. The younger the child, the more vulnerable they are to fluid loss and dehydration.

Seek medical care immediately if the child has diarrhoea, vomiting and at the same time has one or more of the following symptoms:

  • The child is not able to take on any fluids or urinates much less than usual.
  • The child is tired, does not have the energy to play and is uninterested in their surroundings.
  • The child has severe stomach pains that do not pass or which become worse.
  • There is blood in their vomit or in their stools.

Seek medical care at a health centre or on-call clinic. If this is not possible, seek medical care at an emergency department.

Call 1177 if your child has other symptoms or if you are not sure whether to seek medical care.

What can I do myself?

Give the child frequent drinks

Children with gastroenteritis need to take on more fluids than normal. You should therefore offer the child something to drink, ideally as soon as they develop gastroenteritis. Give the child small amounts of liquid at a time, but often. If the child drinks too much liquid in one go, they may vomit again.

You can try giving liquid using a teaspoon if the child is struggling to drink.

Avoid sweet drinks

Avoid giving the child very sweet drinks, such as squash and strong juice. Diarrhoea can worsen if the child ingests too much sugar in a short space of time. Do not give them diet drinks either. They do not contain any sugar at all, but instead contain other substances that may cause diarrhoea. Otherwise, you can give the child whatever they want to drink. The most important thing is that the child takes on fluids.

Try an ice lolly

If the child does not want to drink, you can give them an ice lolly. However, you should continue to offer the child liquids and fluid replacement. Even if the child eats the ice lolly, they still need liquids or fluid replacement.

Continue to breastfeed or bottlefeed

If you are breastfeeding or giving the child breast milk in a bottle, you should continue to do so, but more often than usual and even if the child continues to vomit. If you are breastfeeding, you can try expressing milk manually or using a pump and then giving the milk to the child on a spoon if the child does not want to take the breast.

Drop liquid into the mouth

You can also use a special plastic syringe that is used to give medicine to children. Squirt or drop fluid replacement or breast milk against the inside of the cheek, so that the liquid runs down into the throat. Avoid squirting directly against the palate, as this can make the child retch. Syringes of various sizes are available from pharmacies.

Two teaspoons of liquid every five minutes

Children that are vomiting a lot need to be given two teaspoons of liquid around every five minutes. Two teaspoons is approximately 10 millilitres, if you are using a syringe to give the liquid. Children often need more fluids than you think. A one-year-old, for example, may need more than a litre of fluids during a day.

Fluid replacement may be needed

If the child is vomiting a lot or has severe diarrhoea, it is best to give them fluid replacement, no matter how old they are. Fluid replacement contains appropriate amounts of salts and sugars, which helps to restore the body’s fluid balance.

There may be times when the child does not want to drink the fluid replacement. In this case, you can try flavouring it with a little concentrated juice.

Older children are not as vulnerable to fluid loss and dehydration as younger children. You can therefore give an older child whatever they want to drink if they don’t want the fluid replacement.

Fluid replacement for children can be bought from pharmacies. You can also mix your own fluid replacement for the child.

When vomiting stops but diarrhoea continues

It is common for the child to stop vomiting but to continue to have diarrhoea for a little longer. Babies that are breastfeeding can continue to be breastfed as before. Babies that are bottle-fed can have infant formula, rice gruel or maize gruel depending on how old they are. Start by giving small amounts at a time.

If the child is over six months old, you can try giving them carrot soup, which can help to stop diarrhoea. You can make the soup yourself by mixing carrot purée and water.

When the child wants to start eating again, it is good to give them normal food. You should ideally give the child small amounts of food at a time. It can be a good idea to avoid fruit because fruit can make the contents of the child’s bowels looser. Also avoid wholemeal gruel and fibre-rich foods until the child is feeling well again.

If vomiting returns

Monitor how the child is doing, for example if the child becomes more tired than usual, does not have the energy to play or is uninterested in their surroundings. Seek medical care if the child becomes very tired, limp and feeble.

Preventing gastroenteritis

Gastroenteritis is usually the result of a viral infection. Gastroenteritis is easily spread and often several people in the family or at preschool will fall ill at the same time.

As gastroenteritis is so contagious, it is good to

  • wash your hands with liquid soap before meals and after using the toilet
  • have your own towel or use a disposable towel
  • keep the toilet clean and wiped down.

If a child with gastroenteritis is using nappies, place the used nappies in a plastic bag before putting them in the bin. Clean the changing table and wash your hands thoroughly after changing each nappy.

Keep them at home for two days after their last symptoms

Children must be kept at home when they are suffering from vomiting or diarrhoea. They can return to preschool or day nursery once they are eating normally and have not vomited or had watery diarrhoea for at least 48 hours. Children who go to school should stay at home for one to two days after their health has returned.

What happens inside the body?

With gastroenteritis, the cells of the mucous membrane of the intestine are damaged by the virus, parasite or bacteria. The mucous membrane of the intestine usually absorbs fluid, but if it is damaged, the intestine is unable to absorb fluid normally. Instead, the body loses fluid through vomiting or diarrhoea.

When you have diarrhoea, the body loses both fluid and salts. Children are much more vulnerable to fluid loss than adults. The younger the child, the quicker they become dehydrated.

Vomiting can make it difficult for the child to retain the liquid that they drink. A small child can quickly deteriorate if they lose more fluid than they take on. A high fever means that the child loses even more fluid. It is therefore important to give drinks right from the very beginning of a stomach infection.

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