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Gastroenteritis refers to any irritation or inflammation of the lining of the stomach or intestines.  It is primarily due to a virus, but it may also result from bacterial or parasitic infections; antibiotic side effects; food allergies or food poisoning.  The improper handling, preparation or storage of food; poor hygiene; lack of clean water supplies and sexual contact may also transmit bacteria and parasites.  Other factors that may contribute to gastroenteritis are poor nutrition; alcohol abuse; and excessive use of aspirin, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, laxatives, and caffeine.  Gastroenteritis is more severe in babies, children and the elderly.

Symptoms may include:

  • Abdominal pain and cramping
  • Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and loss of appetite
  • Blood in the stools due to microorganisms (tiny organisms that produce disease)
  • Fever and generalized body aches
  • Signs of dehydration (lethargy, sunken eyes, decreased urination, weight loss or dry skin)

What your doctor can do:

  • Diagnose the disease by asking about your symptoms, doing a physical exam, and ordering laboratory blood tests, and x-rays.
  • Order blood and stool cultures to identify the offending microorganism.
  • Rule out other diseases or conditions such as appendicitis.
  • Prescribe antibiotics for bacterial infections and medicines to control nausea.
  • If serious, hospitalize patient to administer intravenous and electrolyte (salts) solutions.

What you can do:

  • Finish antibiotic and anti-parasitic prescriptions even though you may start to feel better.  (Antibiotics are not effective against viral infections.)
  • Get plenty of rest until nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and fever subside.
  • Start with small sips of clear liquids like tea, ginger ale, Sprite, clear broth or gelatin.
  • Offer electrolyte drinks such as Gatorade (adults) or Pedialyte (children) to limit dehydration.
  • If tolerate liquids for 12 hours, offer a little cereal, bland rice, baked potato or yogurt.
  • Avoid alcohol; spicy foods; raw fruits and vegetables; and dairy products for 1 week.
  • Do not use over-the-counter anti-diarrheal medicines; they may worsen your condition.

Preventive measures:

  • Wash your hands before handling food and especially after using the bathroom.
  • Store food properly; keep food prep area clean; and avoid raw or undercooked meats, seafood, or eggs and non-pasteurized dairy products.
  • Talk to your doctor about preventing gastroenteritis while traveling in foreign countries.

What you can expect:

  • Most people recover from gastroenteritis within 1 to 3 days without complications.
  • Complications may include severe dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, and infections.

Contact your doctor if the nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea continues for more than a week, or if you notice blood in the stools.

Seek immediate medical assistance if your infant or small child develops gastroenteritis and signs of dehydration.


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