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Gastroenteritis is a medical word meaning inflammation of the stomach and bowels. It describes an upset stomach that is causing abdominal pain, diarrhoea, and vomiting.

In most cases, gastroenteritis doesn’t require medical attention as it normally clears up within a few days. In certain circumstances, gastroenteritis will be a sign of something more serious, which means that medical attention is required.

In babies and young children, gastroenteritis must be treated with caution as it can lead to severe dehydration.

What are the symptoms of gastroenteritis?

There are three characteristic symptoms associated with gastroenteritis:

  • Diarrhoea
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Abdominal pain, cramping and bloating

In addition, some people will lose their appetite and have a fever, muscle aches, and headaches.

The length of time that symptoms last depends on what is causing the inflammation. Some infections might result in one or two days of symptoms; others might make you sick for a week or longer.

What causes gastroenteritis?

Usually gastroenteritis is caused by a viral, bacterial, or parasitic infection.

Rotavirus, norovirus, and adenovirus are three viral infections that commonly cause gastroenteritis. Rotavirus and adenovirus are particularly prevalent in young children, while norovirus (the “winter vomiting bug”) is known for causing outbreaks amongst large groups of people as it is highly contagious.

Bacterial gastroenteritis is most commonly associated with food poisoning. If you’ve eaten food that hasn’t been properly prepared, stored or cooked, you might pick up Salmonella, Campylobacter or E. coli.

It’s less common for gastroenteritis to be caused by a parasite. You are more at risk of a parasitic infection if you travel abroad or have contact with animals. Cryptosporidium, Entamoeba and Giardia are three parasites than can cause gastroenteritis.Occasionally, gastroenteritis can be caused by toxins or medicines.

How can I treat gastroenteritis at home?

If you’re experiencing stomach pain, diarrhoea, and vomiting you should avoid work and social outings, and stay at home for at least 48 hours after your symptoms stop. This is because certain infections that cause an upset stomach are highly contagious.

It’s important to stay hydrated as you will be losing more fluids than usual. You should drink plenty of water and try to eat small meals that aren’t particularly acidic, fatty or spicy. In addition you can take oral rehydration solutions to replace lost water and electrolytes.

Some people suffering from gastroenteritis might want to use loperamide (e.g. Imodium) to prevent diarrhoea. This can be useful if you need to travel, but it’s not normally recommended as it doesn’t help treat the cause of your symptoms.

Antibiotics are rarely prescribed for gastroenteritis as they aren’t usually an effective treatment. Your doctor might prescribe a medicine known as an antiemetic if you have severe vomiting.

In very severe cases, you may need to be admitted to hospital to receive fluids through an IV drip.

When should I speak to a doctor?

You should speak to a doctor in the following circumstances:

  • You have severe vomiting and can’t keep down fluids
  • Your vomit is green or yellow
  • There’s blood in your faeces or you’re bleeding from the rectum
  • You’ve had diarrhoea for more than seven days, or vomiting for more than two
  • You’re dehydrated even after using rehydration solutions

With babies and young children, the guidance is slightly different. If you suspect dehydration or a fever it’s best to take them to a doctor – call your GP if you’re in doubt.

  • You should seek urgent medical attention by calling 999 or going to A&E if you:
  • Are vomiting blood or your vomit has the appearance of ground coffee
  • Have a stiff neck
  • Cannot look at bright lights without feeling pain
  • Have a very sudden and severe headache or stomach ache
  • Think you might have swallowed something poisonous

How can I avoid gastroenteritis?

The best way to avoid gastroenteritis is to be careful with food preparation and general hygiene.

Make sure you wash your hands after going to the toilet or changing a baby’s nappy, and always wash your hands before and after preparing food. Keep toilets clean, making sure you disinfect the seat, flush handle, button, and nearby taps and surfaces.

If you do become ill, good hygiene is very important in preventing the spread of sickness.Find out more by booking an online consultation through Doctor Care Anywhere.

Content reviewed by Jemma Shafier, a Doctor Care Anywhere GP