What is gastroenteritis?
Gastroenteritis is a general term for irritation and inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract. The hallmark symptoms of gastroenteritis are nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Gastroenteritis is quite common and can occur in any age group or population.
Gastroenteritis is most frequently caused by a viral infection and is commonly referred to as viral gastroenteritis, the stomach flu, or the 24-hour or 48-hour “bug.” This type of infectious gastroenteritis is contagious.
A bacterial infection, such as Salmonella food poisoning, can cause bacterial gastroenteritis, which is also contagious. Food poisoning is also known as food-borne illness. Every year 48 million Americans suffer from food-borne illnesses.
Similar gastrointestinal symptoms can also result from a variety of other conditions that are not contagious, such as alcohol intoxication or irritable bowel syndrome.
Gastroenteritis can lead to serious complications such as dehydration, especially in infants, young children, the elderly, or people with chronic diseases. The underlying disorder, disease or condition that is causing gastroenteritis can also cause complications.
Seek prompt medical care if you have symptoms of gastroenteritis that do not improve after a day or two.
Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, your child, or someone you are with, have symptoms of gastroenteritis accompanied by lethargy, change in alertness, delirium, a seizure, rectal bleeding, or a lack of urination.
What are the symptoms of gastroenteritis?
The symptoms of gastroenteritis can range from mild to severe and may vary depending on the underlying cause. Symptoms of viral gastroenteritis, caused by a viral infection, generally resolve within 24 to 48 hours. Other causes of gastroenteritis can last longer.
Symptoms of gastroenteritis can include:
Abdominal gas, bloating or belching
Abdominal pain or cramps
Nausea, which may be described as feelings of wooziness, queasiness, retching, sea-sickness, car-sickness, or an upset stomach
Vomiting including multiple episodes
Watery diarrhea including multiple episodes
Weakness (loss of strength)
Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition
Gastroenteritis can lead to serious or life-threatening complications in some cases, including dehydration and gastrointestinal bleeding. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, your child, or someone you are with, are experiencing any of the following life-threatening symptoms:
What causes gastroenteritis?
Gastroenteritis is most frequently caused by a gastrointestinal viral infection. Similar symptoms can also result from a variety of other conditions including:
Bacterial gastrointestinal infection, such as salmonella food poisoning, campylobacter infection, or traveler’s diarrhea
Irritable bowel syndrome
Medication side effects
Parasite infections, such as Giardia infection
Toxic ingestion, such as eating poisonous plants, mushrooms or chemicals
A number of factors increase the risk of developing gastroenteritis. They include:
Close contact with a person who has viral gastroenteritis
Eating eggs or meats that are raw or undercooked
Eating excessively large meals, especially if consumed rapidly
Eating expired foods or leftovers that have been refrigerated for more than two to three days
High stress levels or anxiety
- Ice cubes made from contaminated water
Not washing hands after contact with a person who has bacterial or viral gastroenteritis
Not washing hands frequently, especially after using the bathroom, touching pet feces, handling reptiles, or touching raw foods or foods potentially contaminated with bacteria or parasites or viruses
Taking certain medications, such as antibiotics and chemotherapy
Gastroenteritis can lead to the serious complication of dehydration in some cases. People most at risk for dehydration include:
People with chronic illnesses, such as diabetes or cancer
Reducing your risk of gastroenteritis
Not all people who are at risk for gastroenteritis will develop the condition, but you can lower your risk of developing or transmitting gastroenteritis by :
Avoiding contact with a person who has food poisoning, gastroenteritis, or symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea
Defrosting foods in the refrigerator or microwave, not on the counter
Drinking alcohol in moderation
Keeping poisonous or toxic plants or products out of reach of young children
Not keeping reptiles as pets in homes, especially with infants and young children
- Not using ice cubes in beverages
Refrigerating or freezing leftovers right away and eating them within two to three days of refrigerating. Leftovers from restaurants should be eaten within 24 hours.
Throwing out expired food, old leftovers, or perishable food that has been sitting at room temperature for two hours or longer
Washing hands frequently during and after contact with a person who has food poisoning, gastroenteritis, or symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea
Washing hands frequently, especially after using the bathroom, touching pet feces, handling reptiles, changing diapers, or touching raw foods
Washing plates, utensils, and cutting boards that have been exposed to raw meats or poultry in hot soapy water before reusing
How is gastroenteritis treated?
Treatment plans for gastroenteritis are individualized depending on the underlying cause and your age, medical history, and any other conditions you may have. Treatment generally involves a multifaceted plan that addresses the cause; minimizes the discomfort of nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea; and decreases the risk of dehydration.
When gastroenteritis is caused by a self-limiting condition, such as viral gastroenteritis, treatment includes:
Not eating solid foods to rest the stomach and intestines until symptoms have passed
Drinking plenty of fluids (water or rehydrating fluid, such as Pedialyte) to ensure adequate hydration
In some cases, medications are used to treat gastroenteritis. Antibiotics may be prescribed when gastroenteritis is caused by a bacterial infection, such as in bacterial food poisoning due to Shigella, Salmonella, or Campylobacter infection.
Treatment of severe gastroenteritis that does not resolve or leads to dehydration may require hospitalization and rehydration with intravenous fluids.
Complications of gastroenteritis can be serious, even life threatening in some cases. Complications can include:
Severe dehydration, which can lead to an electrolyte imbalance and shock
·A rip in the esophagus (Mallory-Weiss tear) due to multiple violent episodes of retching and vomiting (a rare occurrence)