Gastroenteritis is a generic medical term for a self-limiting irritation or infection of the stomach, small intestine and/or colon that typically leads to sudden and often violent gastrointestinal upset. It may be identified as traveler’s diarrhea, stomach flu, food poisoning or intestinal flu. After the common cold, gastroenteritis is the second most common cause of work absenteeism among adults and a major cause of sickness and mortality among young children.
Symptoms of Gastroenteritis
Gastroenteritis symptoms vary according to the cause and the gastrointestinal area that's affected and may include one or more of the following:
- Nausea, vomiting
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Unpleasantly cool or clammy skin
- Abdominal pain or cramps
- Extreme thirst
- Involuntary loss of bowel control
- Cheek and eyes are sunken
- Dryness of the mouth and skin
- Dark color of urine
What Causes Gastroenteritis?
Gastroenteritis has a number of causes, but specific causes are often unknown or uncertain at best. Bacterial infections are a major cause of traveler’s diarrhea. Food poisoning, caused by food-borne bacteria, can cause serious illness.
Several viruses can cause gastroenteritis. These viruses include norwalk virus, adenoviruses, caliciviruses, rotaviruses, astroviruses and a group of noroviruses. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in March 2013, norovirus is the leading cause of acute gastroenteritis in children under the age of 5.
The disorder may also be caused by a sudden change in the normal bacterial state of your gastrointestinal tract owing to an illness, the use of antibiotics, or a trip to a foreign country.
What If You Do Nothing?
Gastroenteritis is typically self-limiting, and the associated diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal cramping will generally clear within 48 hours. More severe cases must be treated by a physician.
Children and Gastroenteritis
Infants and very young children are at special risk if they contract gastroenteritis because of the speed with which dehydration often develops. Once the water, salts, and nutrients used by the cells drop below optimal levels, the condition may rapidly become life-threatening, especially for infants under six months of age.
Contact your physician immediately if your child complains of abdominal pain that persists for a half hour or longer or if the child’s stool is flecked or streaked with blood.
Also contact your physician immediately if dehydration is suspected. Signs of dehydration include one or more of the following:
- skin that is dry, cool, and pale;
- abnormal thirst;
- dry tongue;
- rapid pulse; and,
- in infants, a sunken and soft fontanelle (the space between the bones on the top of the infants skull).
Your physician might suggest that, for a bottle-fed infant, you substitute an electrolyte replacement drink (available at supermarkets and pharmacies) for 24 hours to boost fluid levels. On the second day, dilute the baby’s formula to half the normal strength; two-thirds strength on day three; and three-quarters strength on day four. Give the baby the normal volume, but in small amounts every hour or so. You can resume normal feedings on the fifth day.
For breast-fed infants, resume normal feeding within 12 to 24 hours after using the electrolyte solution.
Home Remedies for Gastroenteritis
You can treat mild gastroenteritis with the following self-care measures. (However, if you are taking an antibiotic, call your doctor. The medication may be causing your symptoms.)
- Rest. Get plenty of bed rest until your major symptoms have cleared.
- Drink to replace lost fluids. To prevent dehydration from diarrhea or vomiting, drink clear fluids—tea, de-fizzed ginger ale, or lemon-lime soda—throughout the day. For fluid replacement, drink sports beverages (for adults) or commercially prepared electrolyte-sugar solutions (for infants and children) throughout the day as well. If you are unable to keep any fluids down, take very small sips or try sucking on ice chips.
- Eat a BRAT diet. A mild bland diet consisting of bananas, rice, applesauce and toast is recommended on the second day of the illness and for the following two days after all symptoms have disappeared.
Gastroenteritis may be communicable (think norovirus outbreaks on cruise ships, for example), so you should take the following preventive measures to avoid it or keep it from spreading.
- Practice good hygiene. To avoid germs that cause gastroenteritis, wash your hands frequently throughout the day, especially after going to the bathroom.
- Don’t share. Use your own eating utensils, plates, glasses and dishes and store them separately.
- Use travel sense. To avoid traveler’s diarrhea when traveling in underdeveloped countries, don’t eat fresh fruits and vegetables and uncooked foods. Don’t drink unbottled water or beverages.
- Keep your distance. You should avoid close contact with someone who has the virus.
- Be careful with food preparation and storage. You can take a number of simple steps to prevent food contamination and reduce your risk of getting sick from tainted food.
According to the CDC, swimming in a contaminated lake or pond can increase the risk for norovirus infectionespecially in children, since they are more likely to get water into their mouths. Here are some tips from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about preventing norovirus infection from swimming water:
- Don't swim if you have been vomiting or have diarrhea.
- Shower before swimming or wading.
- Do not swallow swimming water.
- Make sure children take frequent bathroom breaks while swimming.
- In infants and toddlers, check swim diapers often and change them in a bathroom or changing area.
Beyond Home Remedies: When To Call Your Doctor
Most people recover from a mild attack of gastroenteritis within 48 hours without any special medical treatment. However, contact your physician if the symptoms are severe, persist longer than two days, fever is 100°F or higher, or there are signs of dehydration, including excessive thirst, dry mouth, or confusion.
What Your Doctor Will Do
Your physician will take a complete medical history and then examine you. If gastroenteritis is severe, with repeated vomiting, diarrhea, and cramps, medication to stop these symptoms may be prescribed.
If a child or an elderly or debilitated person shows severe symptoms, or if anyone is severely dehydrated, hospitalization may be recommended in order to replace the lost fluids intravenously. For patients who have recently traveled to underdeveloped countries or the tropics, a stool sample may be examined for the presence of organisms causing dysentery.
The Complete Home Wellness Handbook
John Edward Swartzberg, M.D., F.A.C.P., Sheldon Margen, M.D., and the editors of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter
Updated by Remedy Health Media