Health Advice - Gastroenteritis
Gastroenteritis is an infection of the guts (intestines). Many bacteria, viruses and other microbes (bugs) can cause it. It can range from a mild stomach upset for a day or two with some mild diarrhoea to sever vomiting and diarrhoea for several days or longer.
What are the symptoms of gastroenteritis?
- Diarrhoea and / or vomiting are the main symptoms.
- Crampy pains in the abdomen (tummy) are common. Pains may ease each time some diarrhoea is passed.
- High temperatures (fever) and headaches are common.
If vomiting occurs, it typically lasts a day or so. Diarrhoea often starts after any vomiting and may last several days. loose motions (stools) can persist for a week or so before a normal pattern returns.
How do you get gastroenteritis ?
Sometimes it is caused from infected food (food poisoning). Infected water is a cause in some countries. Sometimes it is just "one of those bugs going about". Viruses are common causes of gastroenteritis. Viruses are easily spread from one person to another by close contact or when an infected person prepares food for others.
Can gastroenteritis be prevented?
Good hygiene helps prevent gastroenteritis. Always wash your hands and teach children to wash theirs:-
- after going to the toilet.
- before touching food.
- after gardening.
- after playing with pets (healthy animals can carry certain harmful bacteria).
- between handling raw meat and food ready to be eaten. (There may be some bacteria on raw meat).
If a child has gastroenteritis, the following are also recommended until symptoms go.
- Clean the toilets they use frequently.
- Wipe the flush handle and toilet seat with disinfectant (such as household bleach) after each time they use the toilet.
- Make sure they wash their hands after going to the toilet. Don't share towels and flannels.
- Do not let them help prepare food for others.
What is the treatment for gastroenteritis in children?
Gastroenteritis normally clears within a week or so. The immune system normally fights off the infection. The following are commonly advised until symptoms ease.
* Drinks - give lots to drink. The aim is to avoid dehydration (low body fluid) which is the main possible complication. Even if the child vomits or feels sick it is important to give frequent sips as some fluid will still be absorbed. Ideally fruit juice should be included as this contains some sugar. However, any drink is better than none. If the child will only drink their favourite drink then that is fine. Ice cubes and ice lollies are useful extra sources of fluid.
* Rehydration drinks - may be advised by a doctor or nurse. They are used if there is concern about dehydration. They can be taken instead of, or in addition to, normal drinks.
They are made from sachets available from pharmacies. The contents of the sachet are added to water. rehydration drinks provide a perfect balance of water, salt and sugar. They are better than just drinking water alone. The small amount of sugar and salt helps the water to be absorbed better from the gut into the body. They do not stop or reduce diarrhoea but are the best drinks to prevent or treat dehydration. Do not use home made salt drinks as the quantity of salt has to be exact.
*Food - do not starve a child with gastroentreritis. This used to be advised but is now known to be wrong. The child should eat as normally as possible. However, if he or she does not want to eat, then that is fine. Drinks are the most important and food can wait until their appetite returns. Offer some food every now and then. Soups and food high in carbohydrate such as bread, crackers and pasta are best to start with.
* Breast fed babies - should continue to breast feed if they will take it. Again, this is in addition to extra rehydration drinks if advised.
* Bottle fed babies - should be fed with their normal full strength feeds if they will take it. Again, this is in addition to extra rehydration drinks if advised.
* Medicines - to stop diarrhoea should never be given to children. They sound attractive remedies but are unsafe to give to children due to possible complications.
* Paracetamol - (Calpol, Disprol etc) is useful to ease fever, headache or stomach pains.
Are there any complications?
Complications are uncommon. See a doctor if any of the following develop or if any other symptoms occur that you are concerned about.
- Dehydration. This may be developing if the child drinks little, passes little urine, has a dry mouth and tongue and becomes drowsy.
- Blood in diarrhoea.
- Vomiting for more than one day or diarrhoea not starting to settle after 3 - 4 days.
- Pains that are getting worse.
- Drowsiness or confusion.
- Infections caught abroad.
St John's Ambulance Advice: vomiting & diarrhoea in children