A study found probiotics didn’t help kids get over the stomach flu.

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Gastroenteritis or stomach flu can affect millions of kids each year. Getty Images

It may seem like common sense to help bolster stomach flu treatment in children with a course of probiotics — but you’re likely wasting your money.

Some previous studies have helped push the idea that probiotics are effective in cutting down on the agonizing symptoms of acute gastroenteritis (commonly called “stomach flu”), including diarrhea and vomiting.

But a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine earlier this month, concludes that probiotic supplements have no effect on the duration or severity of acute gastroenteritis in children.

Promises of probiotics

Whether you’re shopping at the supermarket or at the health food store, you’ll likely encounter products from yogurt to supplements touting their probiotic contents. Probiotics — live “good” bacteria that are part of the complex ecosystem in our gut — are touted as a cure for everything from constipation to anxiety.

Unfortunately, despite what the producers of these products would tell you, the science just isn’t clear on these claims.

“What we found was a resounding no difference. The kids that received the probiotic and the kids that received the placebo did exactly the same in terms of every possible outcome we could think of. They had the same duration of diarrhea, the same duration of vomiting, the same duration of fever,” Dr. David Schnadower, a pediatric emergency medicine physician at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and first author of the study, told Healthline.

For their study, Schnadower and his fellow researchers recruited 971 children between the ages of 3 months and 4 years who presented at 10 different pediatric emergency departments around the United States for gastroenteritis.

The study was a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial in which the children were either treated with a 5-day dose of Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG, a commonly sold strain of probiotic bacteria, or with a placebo.

The children followed up with doctors daily for five days, then at two weeks, and finally at one month to track symptoms.

There was no significant difference whatsoever in the health outcomes for the children that took the probiotic compared with those that did not.

“I think that this study was a very well-designed study that pretty definitely shows that there really is not a benefit in using probiotics for kids who are healthy and have gastroenteritis,” said Dr. Sophia Jan, chief of pediatrics at Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New York, who was not affiliated with the research study.

Rise of probiotics

The research comes at a time in which probiotics continue to emerge as a robust sector of the nutritional supplement industry. The global probiotics industry is expected to grow from $37 billion USD in 2015 to more than $64 billion in 2023. That growth will come despite a lack of real clinically conclusive evidence that the health claims made by these product’s manufacturers are legitimate.

“From Whole Foods to Walmart, you will see walls and walls of different probiotic products, probiotic-enriched foods, and people are buying them like candy in the belief that they are good,” said Schnadower.

Because probiotics are marketed as dietary supplements, they are not regulated for their claims by the FDA the way that pharmaceuticals and other medications must prove their efficacy and safety.

Treating the stomach flu

As far as using probiotics to treat gastroenteritis — you may have to just ride it out. That’s because despite the hope that probiotics could help, there isn’t any known cure for stomach flu.

Acute gastroenteritis remains a serious illness worldwide — it is the second leading cause of death in children under five-years old — but deaths are rare in the United States. It can be caused by a variety of pathogens, including bacteria and viruses, that cause the trademark symptoms that it is known for.

It is also highly contagious.

The most dangerous complication that occurs from acute gastroenteritis is dehydration, due to the loss of fluids from diarrhea and vomiting. Children who are immunocompromised, such as those with chronic illnesses are also at increased risk of complications.

“Most gastroenteritis will resolve on their own without a lot of intervention. Kids are miserable, certainly for several days, but the good thing is that most kids will recover fairly well on their own as long as parents continue to encourage their kid to stay hydrated,” said Jan.

It is recommended to treat children with acute gastroenteritis with small but frequent fluids, to keep them hydrated without provoking nausea or vomiting. Also important for families is hygiene, including frequent handwashing, and disinfecting areas like bathrooms that are likely to be contaminated with bodily fluids.

As for treating stomach flu with probiotics, save your money.

“What we are telling families is don’t spend 60 dollars on this, which will do nothing to you. Spend it on good food for your kid or save that money for college. Don’t spend it on something that doesn’t work,” said Schnadower.

The bottom line

A new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine concludes that probiotic supplements have no effect on the duration or severity of acute gastroenteritis in children.