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How to combat the stomach bug that's terrorizing Anchorage parents

  • Author: Jill Burke
  • Updated: September 30, 2016
  • Published February 17, 2016

This weekend, after my 2 1/2-year-old daughter spent the night vomiting, she offered up a quiet "Mama, I'm sorry."

"For what?" I asked.

"For being sick."

I have no idea why she felt the need to apologize. She'd done nothing wrong, and through it all had learned a new skill: how to aim for the bowl we started keeping at her bedside. That tiny "I'm sorry" was sad and sweet and heartbreaking. She came through it like a champ without crying, transformed for a day into a quiet, listless child sleeping off a terrible bout of the stomach flu. Worse for us, she offered a foreshadowing of what was about to take over our family one by one by one.

"Stomach flu" isn't actually a flu at all, but the common word used to describe gastroenteritis, the medical term for irritation and inflammation in the stomach and small intestine caused by any number of different viruses.

Whatever this "bug" is, it's making the rounds in Anchorage. Schools are seeing a lot of it, along with respiratory illnesses and strep, said Nancy Edtl, director of nursing and health services for the Anchorage School District. Meanwhile, nearly all of the calls taken Tuesday by nurses managing the triage line at The Children's Clinic, an Anchorage-based pediatrics clinic, were about vomiting and diarrhea. Curse that bug!

The good news is that home-based care seems to be working. Local emergency rooms aren't seeing a noticeable increase in patients coming in with these symptoms or the main complication from them, dehydration.

For schoolchildren, the illness seems to run "fast and furious," according to Dr. Janet Shen, a pediatrician at TCC. Kids will throw up for several hours, but after 24 hours feel pretty good. "You basically have to ride it out," she said.

Because many families are managing the illness at home, and because ASD does not require or collect diagnoses for absences, there's no way to know exactly which "bug" this may be. Anecdotally, nurses are reporting it districtwide, Edtl said.

So here's your warning. Prepare a battle plan. Predictably, the No. 1 defense against this menace is hygiene. "Wash hands like crazy," advised Shen. Effective hand washing means rubbing your hands with soap and water for three minutes, added Dr. Rachel Samuelson, a physician at the Anchorage Neighborhood Health Clinic, noting it may be "really boring" advice but it's "super important."

You might not win a Grammy, but you can spice up your time hand-washing by jamming along to Disney's "Do You Want to Build a Snowman?," Bruno Mars' "Uptown Funk" or Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off." For the younger set, try nursery rhymes like "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." However you do it, do it a lot.

I like to think my family does a good job with this, but we may need to up the count on our jam sessions at the sink. So far, out of the nine people who live under my roof, six have had the displeasure of this nasty little virus, and we sent an out-of-state house guest home with it as well. Sorry, California. Since we were in the line of fire as we nursed our sick toddler through the night, my wife and I were likely doomed to come down with it. Which leads us to how to deal with the illness if and when it hits.

Your primary mission here is to avoid dehydration. Don't push fluids, as you or your child's stomach may not tolerate them. Instead, sip small amounts of electrolyte solution. Using a product like Pedialyte or Gatorade, "trickle it in," said Shen. If you suspect dehydration, call your doctor or go to the emergency room. This is an especially worrisome condition for very young children and infants. Signs of dehydration include sleepiness, not producing tears, not peeing, or having a dry mouth.

The vomiting should end after several hours. Diarrhea may last longer, up to a week or so. When you're improving and start to feel hungry, trust your body and go ahead and eat "food as tolerated," Samuelson said.

As for curtailing the spread of illness throughout the family, in addition to frequent hand washing, the easiest things to do are "changing the sheets, especially pillowcases (even changing these daily during illness) and airing out the rooms where the ill have been," Edtl said.

Next up is the inevitable return to school or work. Once you're not feeling well, are you still contagious? Yes and no. The providers I spoke with explained that the virus still lives for days in the body, transmittable via bodily fluids, vomit, saliva and stool, after the symptoms go away. But that doesn't mean you can't or shouldn't get back to life as normal. Here, containment is key.

The American Academy of Pediatrics offers guidelines for sending children back to school. For young children, if the stool can be contained to a diaper, they're good to go. Older children are in the clear if they are not having accidents and they are not having overly frequent stools (at least two more than they normally would). It seems obvious, but if a child is vomiting, keep them home. Also keep them home if they've vomited twice or more in the last 24 hours. This means whether your child wakes up and becomes ill, or is ill at bedtime and gets sick twice but wakes up feeling fine, keep them home that day.

A parting note -- take inventory of your special weapons and line them up now. I'm talking about the friends or family you can call on in a pinch to watch a sick child during the day while you work, or perhaps watch a healthy child or prepare a meal for your family while you are ill. It will make "riding it out" that much easier.

Jill Burke is a longtime Alaska journalist writing from the center of a busy family life. Her father swore by "Burke's Law No. 1 -- never take no for an answer." Meaning, don't give up in the face of adversity. The lesson stuck. Share your ideas with her at jill@alaskadispatch.com, on Facebook or on Twitter.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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