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Updated on August 22, 2014

Often called gastroenteritis, enteritis is acute inflammation of the bowel, a condition that is usually associated with food or chemical poisoning and such infectious diseases as typhoid fever. The term 'enteritis' refers to inflammation of the intestines, while the term 'gastroenteritis' refers to inflammation of both the stomach ('gastro') and intestines. Several bacteria and viruses have been demonstrated as causing these disorders. The symptoms of the disease are vomiting, abdominal pain or cramps, fever and diarrhea.

The resulting loss of body fluids causes dehydration and imbalance of serum electrolytes (salts). Gastroenteritis is seriously debilitating to elderly people and infants. Prior to 1950, it was the greatest cause of death in children under the age of two years. It still remains a major cause of infant death in poor countries.

In developed or affluent countries, the infant mortality from gastroenteritis has been enormously reduced in the last 30 years, partly because of prevention (such as clean water and high standards of hygiene) and partly because of much improved treatment made available by modern technology.

Modern machines capable of analyzing blood enable doctors to counteract the effects of severe fluid and salt loss.

Bottle-fed babies are highly susceptible to gastroenteritis, which in hot climates occurs in two main forms. In the summer, it arises from bacterial food poisoning while, if the winter is much cooler than the summer, a form called 'winter diarrhea' occurs; this is caused by a virus that cannot be cultured in the laboratory, although it can be seen under a powerful electron microscope when magnified by a factor of about 2,000,000.

One of the bacteria causing enteritis in summer is salmonella. This organism is closely related to the bacterium that causes typhoid fever and has been a problem in the meat and chicken industries. Another bacterium causing gastroenteritis is vibrio, an organism that usually attacks adults and is closely related to the cholera bacillus. Vibrio grows in seawater and is a contaminant of seafood, including oysters, prawns and raw fish. Asiatic cholera is probably the most severe form of adult gastroenteritis.

If adequate treatment is available, most patients recover; however, if it is not, the death rate is high. Inoculation against cholera protects against some forms of enteritis.


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