Gastroenteritis

Gastroenteritis (stomach flu) is the inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract. It is a very common ailment affecting approximately one in six people in the United States each year. Gastroenteritis may be caused by a virus, bacteria, a parasite, or by the ingestion of a drug or chemical toxin. Most forms of gastroenteritis are contagious, transmitted through contaminated water or food, or spread person-to-person. Although usually self-limited and not life-threatening, gastroenteritis can be dangerous to the very young, very old and immunocompromised.

Symptoms of Gastroenteritis

Although commonly referred to as "stomach flu," gastroenteritis is not related to influenza. It symptoms include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Headache
  • Low-grade fever
  • Abdominal cramping and pain
  • Diarrhea

More serious symptoms of gastroenteritis require immediate medical intervention. These include blood in the stool or vomitus, high fever, vomiting that persists for more than 48 hours, or signs of dehydration, such as:

  • Very dry mouth
  • Lack of tears in infants
  • Dark urine
  • Limited urine output
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Lethargy

If a patient becomes seriously dehydrated, hospitalization may be necessary.

Risk Factors for Gastroenteritis

Gastroenteritis can affect anyone. Those who are at a higher risk of contracting gastroenteritis include:

  • Children in a childcare setting
  • Students or campers in dormitories
  • Travelers, particularly on shipboard
  • Military personnel
  • Infants
  • Patients with compromised immune systems

Infants are especially susceptible to rotovirus. Travelers on cruise ships are prone to norovirus. Infants, the elderly, and patients with pre-existing disease conditions are more susceptible to dehydration as a result of having gastroenteritis.

Diagnosis of Gastroenteritis

Gastroenteritis can usually be diagnosed by after a medical history and thorough physical examination. A stool culture may be used to identify the specific pathogen causing the condition. Other illnesses, such as appendicitis, meningitis and septicemia produce symptoms similar to gastroenteritis and so may have to be ruled out.

Treatment of Gastroenteritis

The treatment of gastroenteritis depends, to certain extent, on the cause of the illness. Viral forms normally resolve on their own within a few days. Bacterial gastroenteritis can be caused by a number of different bacteria, such as E. coli and shigella. Some severe forms of bacterial gastroenteritis may require administration of antibiotics and parasitic infections may be treated with anti-parasitic medication.

In all cases of gastroenteritis, because so much bodily fluid is lost through vomiting and diarrhea, hydration and the balancing of electrolytes is necessary. Normally, patients are told to increase oral fluid intake, but in severe cases, hospitalization and intravenous administration of fluids may be required.

Prevention of Gastroenteritis

Because in most instances there is little to be done to cure gastroenteritis, and because symptoms cause such acute misery, prevention is important. Methods of prevention include:

  • Frequent, thorough handwashing and hand-sanitizing
  • Not sharing personal items or utensils
  • Avoiding contact with people who are ill
  • Getting necessary vaccinations before traveling
  • Checking out sanitation procedures at child care centers and camps

In situations where there is fear of water or food contamination, particularly in certain foreign countries, individuals should avoid eating raw foods, including fruits and vegetables (unless peeled) and salads, and should eat only well-cooked fish or meat. Only bottled water should be ingested or used for toothbrushing and ice cubes should be avoided. Wherever possible, hard surfaces used for eating should be disinfected.

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