Gastroenteritis is a common condition commonly called a stomach bug. Gastroenteritis is an irritation of the stomach and bowel which causes vomiting and diarrhoea. Gastroenteritis can be very unpleasant but doesn’t usually last long and is usually out of your system in a few days.
What causes gastroenteritis?
Gastroenteritis can be caused by bacteria, virus or parasites. The virus that most commonly causes gastroenteritis is norovirus. Norovirus is also called the “winter vomiting bug” as it tends to be more common in the winter months though you can get it anytime of year.
Another common cause of gastroenteritis is from eating raw, undercooked food or food contaminated with bacteria such as E.Coli or Salmonella, this is commonly known as food poisoning.
Travellers’ diarrhoea or “Dehli belly” is also a common cause, drinking contaminated water or food in countries that have don’t have the same hygiene standards. The parasite Giardia is also a common cause when abroad, Giardia can be found in food, water or on surfaces.
What are the symptoms of gastroenteritis?
The main two symptoms as mentioned above is vomiting and diarrhoea, however, you may also experience nausea, cramp like stomach pains, headache or a temperature. In severe cases, dehydration can occur, dehydration is the severe loss of water and essential minerals. Symptoms to look out for include sunken eyes, increased thirst, light headedness, dry mouth, producing little urine and tears (more noticeable in babies).
Is gastroenteritis contagious?
Yes, it can be highly contagious and will often spread through a school, hospital, cruise ship or house rapidly. If you have gastroenteritis then you should remain at home for at least 48 hours to prevent the spread.
How can I avoid getting gastroenteritis?
To prevent gastroenteritis from spreading ensure you wash your hands regularly with soap and warm water and disinfect handles, toilet seats and surfaces. Wash any soiled bedding or clothes separately at the highest temperature possible and avoid sharing towels and utensils.
Don’t let travellers’ diarrhoea ruin your holiday, if you are travelling abroad and the water is less sanitary, drink bottled water, use bottled water for brushing teeth and avoid ice in drinks. Always wash hands thoroughly before eating and make sure all food you eat is well cooked. You should try to eat at restaurants with good hygiene and avoid eating food from street vendors.
What is the diagnosis for gastroenteritis?
Most people will be able to diagnose gastroenteritis from their symptoms and they shouldn’t need to visit a doctor. However, if your symptoms persist for more than 48 hours or you have weak immune system then you should consult your doctor. You should also contact your doctor if there is blood in your vomit or stools, you become dehydrated, your temperature rises above 100.4F (38C) or your stomach is swollen. Your doctor may ask you questions about your symptoms, if the diarrhoea is persistent your doctor may take a stool sample to help identify the cause of infection. If you do need to see a doctor ensure you tell them your symptoms before going to the surgery.
What is the treatment for gastroenteritis?
Most people with gastroenteritis will recover at home without the need for specific treatment or seeing a doctor. It is very important if you have gastroenteritis to stay at home as it is highly contagious. The main treatment is to stay hydrated, so ensure you continue to drink fluids. You should stick to drinks such as water or squash and avoid fizzy drinks, coffee and tea. Once you are hydrated try to eat something small and bland. Foods such as bananas, dry toast, pasta, soup, rice or potatoes are recommended as these are less likely to irritate the already sensitive stomach. Avoid sugary, spicy or fatty foods, nicotine and alcohol.
Special rehydration drinks made from sachets are also available from pharmacies these help to replace lost salts and fluids.
There are medicines available such as Loperamide, which works by slowing down your bowel. Loperamide should not be used long term but can prove helpful if you do need to travel or want to limit the number of trips to the toilet. For more information or to buy Loperamide click here.
Certain probiotics found in some yoghurts or supplements contain “good bacteria” these can help protect the stomach or reduce the time you have diarrhoea for, though more research is required.
Your doctor might subscribe antibiotics if they believe the parasite giardia or bacteria is the cause of your symptoms.
Are there any long-term effects of gastroenteritis?
Gastroenteritis can be more serious in babies and in the elderly and the most common complication is dehydration. If dehydration occurs and hospital treatment is required then fluids will be given directly into your bloodstream via a drip to rehydrate you.
Sometimes gastroenteritis can cause lactose intolerance for a few days or even weeks, especially in young children. You should avoid dairy products until your symptoms improve, this can be difficult in babies who only drink milk. Speak to your doctor who can recommend alternatives.