By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD
Gastroenteritis refers to an infection of the stomach and the intestine. The most common symptoms of gastroenteritis are vomiting and frequent episodes of diarrhea that occur three or four times every 24 hours.
The symptoms of gastroenteritis usually begin within 24 to 48 hours of infection and may include:
Nausea or feeling ill
Metallic taste in the mouth
Three or more episodes of diarrhea every 24 hours
Stool may contain blood and mucus
Chills, shivering and fever
Muscle and body ache
Gastroenteritis may be caused by viruses, bacteria or parasites. In England, the majority of adult gastroenteritis is caused by norovirus and food poisoning. The infection interferes with the absorption of water from the contents of the intestine, which leads to dehydration and the passing of watery stools.
Gastroenteritis is highly infectious and is mainly spread from person to person via the fecal–oral route, usually as a result of people touching objects after using the toilet without washing their hands. If another person touches their mouth after touching the contaminated object or uses the object to prepare or eat food, they may become infected with the virus.
Diagnosis and treatment
Gastroenteritis often does not require a diagnosis because the symptoms usually clear up without treatment. If symptoms persist, however, a stool sample may sent for analysis to help determine the pathogen that has caused the infection. While viral diarrhea usually resolves with rest and plenty of clear fluids, bacterial diarrhea needs to be treated using antibiotics. In some cases, blood and urine tests may also be recommended to rule out other conditions if an individual is particularly ill or symptoms last for longer than would usually be expected with gastroenteritis.
The majority of people who suffer form gastroenteritis only experience mild symptoms that pass after a few days. However, if patients are severely ill or vulnerable due to older age or another condition, then treatment may be recommended to prevent dehydration which can be fatal.
Dehydration leads to an excess loss of fluid and electrolytes from the body. An oral rehydration solution can be used to treat these individuals. The solution contains a carefully balanced mixture of salt, sugar and essential electrolytes such as sodium and potassium to help replace fluid that has been lost.
Reviewed by Sally Robertson, BSc
Last Updated: Mar 31, 2014