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Gastroenteritis Causes and Treatment

Updated on November 16, 2009

You wake with that uncomfortable feeling in your stomach. Something is brewing down there, and it doesn't feel good. The gurgling grows steadily louder, the cramp­ing pains become worse, and then there's the mad rush to the bathroom as the vom­iting starts. A few hours later when you are beginning to feel that the dry retching will never stop, the vomiting starts to ease, and then the diarrhea starts. For a while you are not sure which end should be over the toilet bowl! For between 24 and 72 hours you are tormented by your intestinal tract as it heaves and squeezes to rid the body of every trace of food and fluid. Eventually it ceases and you can rest, feeling drained and exhausted.

Very few of us have escaped the trial of gastroenteritis, which is usually a viral infection of the gut. The rotavirus is one of the most common viruses responsible for this type of infection, particularly in chil­dren. There may be other causes of diarrhea and vomiting, including food poisoning, toxins and bacterial infections. During the one to three days or more of the disease, the viol­ent contractions of the bowel have not only expunged the entire contents of your gut, they have also washed out most of the infecting viruses, and antibodies have developed in the bloodstream to fight off the infection from the inside.

Gastroenteritis often appears in epidem­ics, and usually in spring or early summer. It passes from one person to another through contamination of the hands, and then food. Children are more commonly affected than adults, and infants can be quite dangerously ill from the disease. The great danger in the little ones is dehydra­tion.

The treatment in both adults and chil­dren is primarily diet to replace the fluid and vital salts that are rinsed out of the body by the vomiting and diarrhea, and then to carefully reintroduce foods and gradually increase the food intake to restore it to normal.

In adults, medications can be used to slow down the rush to the toilet and ease the gut cramps, but these do not work well in children or have unacceptable side effects. Paracetamol can be used for the abdominal pain. Children must be checked by a doctor if they have diarrhea or vomiting that lasts more than 12 hours. A few may become rapidly dehydrated and require urgent hospitalization so that the lost fluid can be replaced through a drip into a vein. Some children develop an intolerance to milk sugar (lactose) after a viral gut infection, and this may prevent them from returning to a normal diet for several weeks or months.

Please Note:


  • The information provided on this page is not intended as a substitute for the advice of a registered physician or other healthcare professional.

  • The content of this page is intended only to provide a summary and general overview. Do not use this information to disregard medical advice, nor to delay seeking medical advice.

  • Be sure to consult with your doctor for a professional diagnosis and appropriate medical treatment.

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