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Gastroenteritis is a catchall term for infection or irritation of the digestive tract, particularly the stomach and intestine. It is frequently referred to as the stomach or intestinal flu, although the influenza virus is not associated with this illness. Major symptoms include nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps. These symptoms are sometimes also accompanied by fever and overall weakness. Gastroenteritis typically lasts about three days. Adults usually recover without problem, but children, the elderly, and anyone with an underlying disease are more vulnerable to complications such as dehydration.


Gastroenteritis is an uncomfortable and inconvenient ailment, but it is rarely life-threatening in the United States and other developed nations. However, an estimated 220,000 children younger than age five are hospitalized with gastroenteritis symptoms in the United States annually. Of these children, 300 die as a result of severe diarrhea and dehydration. In developing nations, diarrheal illnesses are a major source of mortality. In 1990, approximately three million deaths occurred worldwide as a result of diarrheal illness.
The most common cause of gastroenteritis is viral infection. Viruses such as rotavirus, adenovirus, astrovirus, and calicivirus and small round-structured viruses (SRSVs) are found all over the world. Exposure typically occurs through the fecal-oral route, such as by consuming foods contaminated by fecal material related to poor sanitation. However, the infective dose can be very low (approximately 100 virus particles), so other routes of transmission are quite probable.
Typically, children are more vulnerable to rotaviruses, the most significant cause of acute watery diarrhea. Annually, worldwide, rotaviruses are estimated to cause 800,000 deaths in children below age five. For this reason, much research has gone into developing a vaccine to protect children from this virus. Adults can be infected with rotaviruses, but these infections typically have minimal or no symptoms.
Children are also susceptible to adenoviruses and astroviruses, which are minor causes of childhood gastroenteritis. Adults experience illness from astroviruses as well, but the major causes of adult viral gastroenteritis are the caliciviruses and SRSVs. These viruses also cause illness in children. The SRSVs are a type of calicivirus and include the Norwalk, Southhampton, and Lonsdale viruses. These viruses are the most likely to produce vomiting as a major symptom.
Bacterial gastroenteritis is frequently a result of poor sanitation, the lack of safe drinking water, or contaminated food-conditions common in developing nations. Natural or man-made disasters can make underlying problems in sanitation and food safety worse. In developed nations, the modern food production system potentially exposes millions of people to disease-causing bacteria through its intensive production and distribution methods. Common types of bacterial gastroenteritis can be linked to Salmonella and Campylobacter bacteria; however, Escherichia coli 0157 and Listeria monocytogenes are creating increased concern in developed nations. Cholera and Shigella remain two diseases of great concern in developing countries, and research to develop long-term vaccines against them is underway.

Causes and symptoms

Gastroenteritis arises from ingestion of viruses, certain bacteria, or parasites. Food that has spoiled may also cause illness. Certain medications and excessive alcohol can irritate the digestive tract to the point of inducing gastroenteritis. Regardless of the cause, the symptoms of gastroenteritis include diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, and abdominal pain and cramps. Sufferers may also experience bloating, low fever, and overall tiredness. Typically, the symptoms last only two to three days, but some viruses may last up to a week.
A usual bout of gastroenteritis shouldn't require a visit to the doctor. However, medical treatment is essential if symptoms worsen or if there are complications. Infants, young children, the elderly, and persons with underlying disease require special attention in this regard.
The greatest danger presented by gastroenteritis is dehydration. The loss of fluids through diarrhea and vomiting can upset the body's electrolyte balance, leading to potentially life-threatening problems such as heart beat abnormalities (arrhythmia). The risk of dehydration increases as symptoms are prolonged. Dehydration should be suspected if a dry mouth, increased or excessive thirst, or scanty urination is experienced.
If symptoms do not resolve within a week, an infection or disorder more serious than gastroenteritis may be involved. Symptoms of great concern include a high fever (102 ° F [38.9 °C] or above), blood or mucus in the diarrhea, blood in the vomit, and severe abdominal pain or swelling. These symptoms require prompt medical attention.


The symptoms of gastroenteritis are usually enough to identify the illness. Unless there is an outbreak affecting several people or complications are encountered in a particular case, identifying the specific cause of the illness is not a priority. However, if identification of the infectious agent is required, a stool sample will be collected and analyzed for the presence of viruses, disease-causing (pathogenic) bacteria, or parasites.


Gastroenteritis is a self-limiting illness which will resolve by itself. However, for comfort and convenience, a person may use over-the-counter medications such as Pepto Bismol to relieve the symptoms. These medications work by altering the ability of the intestine to move or secrete spontaneously, absorbing toxins and water, or altering intestinal microflora. Some over-the-counter medicines use more than one element to treat symptoms.
If over-the-counter medications are ineffective and medical treatment is sought, a doctor may prescribe a more powerful anti-diarrheal drug, such as motofen or lomotil. Should pathogenic bacteria or parasites be identified in the patient's stool sample, medications such as antibiotics will be prescribed.
It is important to stay hydrated and nourished during a bout of gastroenteritis. If dehydration is absent, the drinking of generous amounts of nonalcoholic fluids, such as water or juice, is adequate. Caffeine, since it increases urine output, should be avoided. The traditional BRAT diet-bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast-is tolerated by the tender gastrointestinal system, but it is not particularly nutritious. Many, but not all, medical researchers recommend a diet that includes complex carbohydrates (e.g., rice, wheat, potatoes, bread, and cereal), lean meats, yogurt, fruit, and vegetables. Milk and other dairy products shouldn't create problems if they are part of the normal diet. Fatty foods or foods with a lot of sugar should be avoided. These recommendations are based on clinical experience and controlled trials, but are not universally accepted.
Minimal to moderate dehydration is treated with oral rehydrating solutions that contain glucose and electrolytes. These solutions are commercially available under names such as Naturalyte, Pedialyte, Infalyte, and Rehydralyte. Oral rehydrating solutions are formulated based on physiological properties. Fluids that are not based on these properties-such as cola, apple juice, broth, and sports beverages-are not recommended to treat dehydration. If vomiting interferes with oral rehydration, small frequent fluid intake may be better tolerated. Should oral rehydration fail or severe dehydration occur, medical treatment in the form of intravenous (IV) therapy is required. IV therapy can be followed with oral rehydration as the patient's condition improves. Once normal hydration is achieved, the patient can return to a regular diet.

Alternative treatment

Symptoms of uncomplicated gastroenteritis can be relieved with adjustments in diet, herbal remedies, and homeopathy. An infusion of meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) may be effective in reducing nausea and stomach acidity. Once the worst symptoms are relieved, slippery elm (Ulmus fulva) can help calm the digestive tract. Of the homeopathic remedies available, Arsenicum album, ipecac, or Nux vomica are three said to relieve the symptoms of gastroenteritis.
Probiotics, bacteria that are beneficial to a person's health, are recommended during the recovery phase of gastroenteritis. Specifically, live cultures of Lactobacillus acidophilus are said to be effective in soothing the digestive tract and returning the intestinal flora to normal. L. acidophilus is found in live-culture yogurt, as well as in capsule or powder form at health food stores. The use of probiotics is found in folk remedies and has some support in the medical literature. Castor oil packs to the abdomen can reduce inflammation and also reduce spasms or discomfort.


Gastroenteritis is usually resolved within two to three days and there are no long-term effects. If dehydration occurs, recovery is extended by a few days.


There are few steps that can be taken to avoid gastroenteritis. Ensuring that food is well-cooked and unspoiled can prevent bacterial gastroenteritis, but may not be effective against viral gastroenteritis.



Hart, C. Anthony, and Nigel A. Cunliffe. "Viral Gastroenteritis." Current Opinion in Infectious Diseases 10 (1997): 408.
Moss, Peter J., and Michael W. McKendrick. "Bacterial Gastroenteritis." Current Opinion in Infectious Diseases 10 (1997): 402.

Key terms

Dehydration — A condition in which the body lacks the normal level of fluids, potentially impairing normal body functions.
Electrolyte — An ion, or weakly charged element, that conducts reactions and signals in the body. Examples of electrolytes are sodium and potassium ions.
Glucose — A sugar that serves as the body's primary source of fuel.
Influenza — A virus that affects the respiratory system, causing fever, congestion, muscle aches, and headaches.
Intravenous (IV) therapy — Administration of intravenous fluids.
Microflora — The bacterial population in the intestine.
Pathogenic bacteria — Bacteria that produce illness.
Probiotics — Bacteria that are beneficial to a person's health, either through protecting the body against pathogenic bacteria or assisting in recovery from an illness.


inflammation of the lining of the stomach and intestine. Psychologic causes may include fear, anger, and other forms of emotional upset. Allergic reactions to certain foods can cause the condition, as can irritation by excessive use of alcohol. Severe gastroenteritis, with such symptoms as headache, nausea, vomiting, weakness, diarrhea, and gas pains, may result from various infectious and contagious diseases, such as typhoid fever, influenza, and food poisoning.
eosinophilic gastroenteritis a disorder, commonly associated with intolerance to specific foods, marked by infiltration of the mucosa of the small intestine and frequently the stomach by eosinophils, with edema but without vasculitis and by eosinophilia of the peripheral blood. Symptoms depend on the site and extent of the disorder.


Inflammation of the mucous membrane of both stomach and intestine.
Synonym(s): enterogastritis
[gastro- + G. enteron, intestine, + -itis, inflammation]


/gas·tro·en·ter·i·tis/ (-en″ter-i´tis) inflammation of the stomach and intestine.
bacterial gastroenteritis  any type caused by a bacterial toxin or bacterial infection, the most common agents being Salmonella, Shigella, and Campylobacter.
eosinophilic gastroenteritis  a type usually associated with intolerance to specific foods, with infiltration of the mucosa of the small intestine (and often the stomach) by eosinophils; there is edema but no vasculitis; symptoms depend on the site and extent of the disorder.
Norwalk gastroenteritis , Norwalk virus gastroenteritis a type caused by the Norwalk virus.
viral gastroenteritis  any type caused by a virus; the most common agents being rotaviruses and Norwalk virus.


Inflammation of the mucous membrane of the stomach and intestines.


Etymology: Gk, gaster + enteron, intestine, itis, inflammation
an inflammation of the stomach and intestines accompanying numerous GI disorders. Symptoms are anorexia, nausea, vomiting, fever (depending on causative factor), abdominal discomfort, and diarrhea. The condition may be caused by bacterial enterotoxins, bacterial or viral invasion, chemical toxins, or miscellaneous conditions, such as lactose intolerance. The onset may be slow, but more often it is abrupt and violent, with rapid loss of fluids and electrolytes caused by persistent vomiting and diarrhea. Hypokalemia and hyponatremia, acidosis, or alkalosis may develop. Treatment is supportive and includes bed rest, sedation, IV replacement of electrolytes, and antispasmodic medication to control vomiting and diarrhea. With a precise diagnosis, medication and treatment can be specific and curative, such as an antitoxin prescribed for gastroenteritis resulting from a bacterial endotoxin. After the acute phase, water may be given by mouth. If it produces no vomiting or diarrhea, clear fluids may be added, followed, if tolerated, by a diet of foods that appeal to the patient and do not cause symptoms. Also called enterogastritis.
observations Onset is often sudden, with abdominal pain and cramping, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea with or without blood and mucus, anorexia, general malaise, and muscle aches. Dehydration, hypokalemia, and hyponatremia occur with persistent vomiting and diarrhea. Diagnosis relies on identification of the causative agent through stool and blood cultures, Gram's stain, and direct swab rectal cultures. Complications of gastroenteritis include dehydration, shock, vascular collapse, and renal failure. In rare instances, complications may lead to death. Infants, small children, the elderly, and debilitated individuals are at greatest risk.
interventions Most gastroenteritis is self-limiting and does not require therapy. Adequate rehydration is the primary treatment. Fluids are limited until vomiting ceases, then oral rehydration is instituted. IV fluid and electrolyte replacement may be necessary if dehydration is severe. Antidiarrheal agents may be used to slow diarrhea. Antibiotic agents may be used for gastroenteritis with systemic involvement. Antimicrobials are not generally recommended for simple gastroenteritis because these drugs may prolong the carrier state and contribute to the emergence of drug-resistant organisms. Antiemetics may be used for moderate to severe vomiting unless the causative agent is viral or bacterial, in which case antiemetics are not given to avoid impairment of GI motility.
nursing considerations Nursing focus is on the replacement and monitoring of fluid and electrolytes. Accurate monitoring of intake and output is essential. Strict medical asepsis should be instituted when indicated by the causative agent. The importance of rest and increased fluid intake should be stressed along with the self-limiting nature of the disease. Education about proper food handling and storage is necessary after acute symptoms have ceased.


Gastrointestinal inflammation Internal medicine Acute inflammation of the upper GI tract Etiology Viruses–rotavirus, enteric adenovirus, Norwalk virus, Norwalk-like viruses, calicivirus, astrovirus, bacteria–Salmonella, Shigella, occasionally toxins, food poisoning, stress and other factors Clinical Diarrhea, N&V, anorexia. See Epidemic viral gastroenteritis, Traveler's diarrhea, Viral gastroenteritis.


Inflammation of the mucous membrane of both stomach and intestine.
Synonym(s): enterogastritis.
[gastro- + G. enteron, intestine, + -itis, inflammation]


Inflammation of the lining of the stomach and the small intestine from infection with organisms, such as Salmonella , various viruses and Escherichia coli . There is fever, abdominal pain, diarrhoea and vomiting. Gastroenteritis kills millions of children each year in Third World countries, mostly from dehydration and malnutrition.


an inflammation of the intestinal tract, resulting in diarrhoea, vomiting and nausea.


n inflamed stomach and intestines, often associated with diarrhea. Also called


Inflammation of mucous membrane of both stomach and intestine.
[gastro- + G. enteron, intestine, + -itis, inflammation]


inflammation of the lining of the stomach and intestine. The clinical manifestations are vomiting and diarrhea. See also gastritis.

canine hemorrhagic gastroenteritis
an acute syndrome of vomiting and bloody diarrhea with dehydration and marked hemoconcentration. If not treated vigorously, it may lead to circulatory failure and death in a short time. The cause is unknown.
eosinophilic gastroenteritis
a chronic segmental disease of the alimentary tract characterized by a variety of signs depending on the location of the lesion but including vomiting, or diarrhea or melena or hematochezia. Occurs in dogs, particularly German shepherd dogs, rarely in cats, and in horses. Diarrhea, weight loss and a protein-losing enteropathy result. A hypersensitivity to ingested allergens is the suggested cause. The diagnostic lesion is the aggregation of eosinophils in the intestinal wall. See also eosinophilic gastritis.
transmissible viral gastroenteritis of pigs
see transmissible gastroenteritis.

Patient discussion about gastroenteritis

Q. what treatment for my 11 year old with gastroenteritis

A. Gastroenteritis that involeves ferequent stools and abdominal pain usually goes away within few days. If not so, and you child looks drousy or tired because of lack of fluid or food intake, you should take your child to a doctor that will decide if there's a need to give fluids to avoid dehydration. Food that is good to consume is rice, apples, bananas, toast, and basically avoid dairy products for a few days. Keep your child drinking water often.

Q. What Causes Specific Abdominal Pain? Everytime I go see a doctor when I have abdominal pains he tells me I probably have gastroenteritis. How does he know that it's not something else for instance, appendicitis, just by examining my abdomen?

A. whats the symptoms of ovarian cyst?

More discussions about gastroenteritis
References in periodicals archive ?
She went to her doctor who said it was a tummy bug.
The study at Aberaeron Comprehensive, Ysgol Bro Brynach and Lamphey Primary School in Pembrokeshire found high levels of coliforms, which can cause minor tummy bugs, and other bacteria which can cause more serious illness in people who are already ill.
TRAGIC: Callum Senior-Mason, who died after going to hospital with a tummy bug
With kids, accidents can happen in the blink of an eye and you never know when a tummy bug or fever might hit.
OUR house, along with many others, is in the grip of a tummy bug the details of which go beyond what is acceptable to publish in a family newspaper.
Cook with care: Don't serve up a tummy bug with your Christmas dinner
PAGES 16&17 Grimm role for Carlyle tale car Scary PS12MA RECORD PLUS PAGES 04&05 woman My tummy bug turned out to be bowel cancer PAGES 08&09 Your Satuturday famamily mily mily ily .
Skipper Ian Roper missed the 1-0 reversal at Barton in midweek due to a tummy bug but is expected to figure in the squad.
But do not let misguided loyalty overwhelm common sense if you have been laid low by the virulent tummy bug that is sweeping this area.
Meanwhile in the Caribbean, scores of hotel guests are down with a tummy bug.
She had to descend just 3,500ft from the summit after being immobilised by a severe tummy bug.