Health 101: Rotavirus & Stomach Flu

How Might a Child Catch Stomach Flu?

Stomach bugs are highly contagious. Playing with an infected child is the main way the virus spreads, since germs can live on toys and clothes for hours or even days. If the infection results from bacteria or parasites, your child may have consumed contaminated food or water (most likely while overseas or camping, for example).

What makes stomach flu particularly virulent is that children are contagious before they actually show any symptoms. Also, adults -- with their heartier immune systems -- may harbor the germs and pass them along without ever getting sick themselves.

So what can you do to stop the spread? "We can't stress enough how important hand-washing is," says Stanley Cohen, MD, a pediatric gastroenterologist at the Children's Center for Digestive Health Care in Atlanta, Georgia. For a thorough scrub, use soap and warm water and rub your hands together for at least 15 to 20 seconds (sing "Happy Birthday" for a gauge of length); this helps prevent passing germs around your family.

It's a good idea to wash not just after using the bathroom, but after coming home from public places like malls or movie theaters or after being around other kids on playdates, for example. Show your toddlers and preschoolers how to wash properly, and ask their childcare providers whether kids are required to clean their hands throughout the day (not just after using the bathroom and before meals).

Wiping down changing tables, potty seats, and toilet bowls with bleach may help, but not always. "Rotavirus can be quite resistant to cleaning products," says David B. Nelson, MD, chair and professor of pediatrics at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C. "That's why the vaccine has become so important in preventing illness."

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