Gastroenteritis: Overview

Alternative names: Stomach Flu

Gastroenteritis is the irritation and inflammation of the digestive tract.  Gastroenteritis caused by viral infection or bacteria is easily passed from one person to another.

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Eosinophilic gastroenteritis – Benign eosinophilic infiltration of the gut is a rare disorder which can occur anywhere from the esophagus to the colon, causing symptoms dependent upon the area and tissue layer of bowel involved.  Gastric mucosal disease is typically associated with nausea and vomiting.

Incidence; Causes and Development; Contributing Risk Factors

All ages and both sexes may be affected yet the most severe symptoms are experienced by infants and those individuals over sixty years old.

Food poisoning, stress, excessive alcohol or tobacco use, viral infections, food allergies, improper diet, certain drugs, food consumed in foreign countries and intestinal parasites are all possible causes for this condition.

In most children, gastroenteritis symptoms are caused by rotavirus.  The parents of a child infected with rotavirus often become ill as well.  The rotavirus "season" is usually during October through April.

The Norwalk Virus is another possible cause of infectious gastroenteritis.  This may be transmitted through contaminated water or food and is often contracted from shellfish bred in contaminated water.  Infectious gastroenteritis is also contracted by eating other foods which have been stored improperly or prepared in an unclean environment.

The use of certain drugs such as aspirin, antibiotics or cortisone drugs may increase risk for this condition.

Signs and Symptoms

The most common symptoms include:

The incubation period in children is about two days, followed by about three days of active vomiting, after which there are approximately 4-8 days of diarrhea.  As with any ailment affecting children, a doctor should be consulted, even when symptoms are mild.

Treatment and Prevention

Severe cases of gastroenteritis can result in dehydration due to excess fluid loss.  In such cases, fluid replacement is the primary factor in treatment.

Self-treatment for adults may consist of the following:

  • Decrease activity until vomiting and diarrhea subside
  • Drink clear fluids such as ginger ale, broth, tea and gelatin for the first 24 hours or until diarrhea and vomiting stop
  • Eat bland foods for the second 24 hours such as crackers, rice, eggs, soup, bread, applesauce or cooked cereal
  • Do not consume spicy foods, vegetables, fruits, bran, dairy products, fried foods, candy or alcohol
  • Normal diet may resume after two or three days
  • Drink 8 to 12 glasses of liquid daily to prevent dehydration through diarrhea or vomiting
  • Take non-aspirin medications for aches and avoid aspirin and ibuprofen since these medications may irritate the gastrointestinal system
  • Do not assume that all abdominal pain is a mild case of gastroenteritis, particularly if it is centered in the lower right abdomen, since this condition is often mistaken for other more serious ailments.

In severe cases where vomiting is prolonged, a doctor may prescribe an anti-emetic suppository or give medication by injection.  Prolonged diarrhea is often treated with medications that harden stools and reduce bowel activity.  As soon as bowels resume normal function, this medication is stopped.

Care should always be taken to wash the hands often, especially when preparing food and after bowel movements.  Hand washing after bowel movements is important since the organism that causes this condition lives in the digestive tract.

Prognosis; Seek medical attention if...

Viral gastroenteritis may last from several hours to several days and clear up without medicines, while bacterial infections can last over a week and require medication.  Most cases of gastroenteritis in adults will clear up after a few days.  For infants under two months of age, any symptoms of this condition should be seen as serious and a doctor should be consulted.

A doctor should also be consulted if the any of the following occur:

  • Symptoms persisting for more than 48 hours
  • Mucus or blood in stools
  • Fever over 101 degrees
  • Severe abdominal or rectal pain
  • Vomiting and diarrhea after being treated.

Signs, symptoms & indicators of Gastroenteritis:

Symptoms - Abdomen

Symptoms - Bowel Movements

Symptoms - Gas-Int - General

(Very) foul-smelling flatulence

Infections of the digestive tract can lead to foul-smelling flatulence.  There are many different bacteria and viruses that can cause infections in the lining of the digestive tract.  Some of these may be associated with traveling to different parts of the world; infections are usually accompanied by gas, diarrhea, fever, and abdominal pain.

Regular/frequent unexplained nausea

Acute gastroenteritis is a common cause of acute care-seeking and is second only to the common cold as a cause of lost work time.  Bacterial, viral, and parasitic pathogens cause this illness which is characterized by diarrhea and/or vomiting.  Vomiting is especially common with infections caused by rotaviruses, enteric adenovirus, Norwalk agent, and calicivirus.

Symptoms - Metabolic

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Conditions that suggest Gastroenteritis:


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