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Few things make parents cringe more than the thought of a stomach virus hitting the household. With everyone indoors together more for winter, it seems almost inevitable, but there are a few steps you can take to reduce the spread.

“There are some common misconceptions,” said Justin Moll, a pediatrician with Parkside Pediatrics. “The stomach virus is a lot of times also called a stomach flu or ‘the flu.’ The truth is, it’s not the flu.”

Influenza – the flu – is an entirely different illness with cough, congestion, high fever and other symptoms. A flu shot will not provide protection from norovirus, which Moll said is a common cause of stomach-related illnesses.

“It’s not just one, but a family of viruses,” he said. “The reason it’s so extremely contagious is that it only takes a few microscopic particles to spread. It’s the fecal-oral route. The virus from infected feces or vomit somehow finds its way into someone’s mouth.”

That’s horrible to think about, but knowing how the virus spreads can help prevent it. Hand washing is the first and best defense, Moll said.

“Hand sanitizer doesn’t do a great job with GI (gastrointestinal) bugs,” he said. “If you are changing diapers or cleaning up after a sick child, wash hands diligently.”

Stomach viruses can also be acquired from someone preparing food.

“Viral gastroenteritis is the No. 1 cause of food-borne illness in the U.S.,” Moll said. “It’s spread from person to person just by touching surface. Compared to other viruses, it can be pretty hearty. It can live for days on a counter top.”

In fact, you can spread a stomach virus even before you have symptoms, but it is more common after you have symptoms. If you are sick, don’t prepare food. If more than one caregiver is available, Moll advises designating one for food prep and another for cleaning.

“Use gloves to handle soiled clothing or bedding,” he said. “A bleach-based cleaner is probably the best way to kill the virus on hard surfaces.”

If possible, designate one bathroom for use by the sick person, continuing for three or four days after symptoms cease. Once someone in the household gets sick, it is important to watch out for dehydration, especially in babies and young children. Moll advises drinking a baby- or child-friendly electrolyte solution, like Pedialyte, which will replace lost electrolytes better than plain water or juice.

“Avoid soda and juices or plain water if you can’t eat,” he said.

Moll said his guidelines are to call your child’s pediatrician if there is blood present in stool or vomit, if diarrhea hasn’t resolved or is getting worse after one week or if your child is lethargic, confused, has dark urine or is not urinating. If vomiting and diarrhea are both present for more than one day, contact your child’s pediatrician because a hydration assessment or medication to stop vomiting may be needed.

“It’s not unusual to have fever, but at Parkside, we say with fever for more than three days or vomiting for more than a day, we probably need to see you,” he said.

More:December: Health resources for families

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