You can get gastroenteritis by eating or drinking food that has bacteria, viruses or parasites in it. You can also catch gastroenteritis from another person with it. The infections that cause gastroenteritis can inflame the lining of your gut and stop it working as it should, causing diarrhoea and other symptoms.
In the UK, about one in five people get an infection that causes gastroenteritis each year. The illness is more common in young children, who may have it more than once a year. If you have gastroenteritis, you will usually recover and feel better within a few days and won’t need medical treatment. However, if a baby or young child has severe diarrhoea or vomiting, they can become dehydrated and may need medical attention.
Symptoms of gastroenteritis
The time between catching the infection and the start of your symptoms (the incubation period) depends on the type of infection you have. It's usually between one and three days, but symptoms can sometimes come on faster or slower than this.
- diarrhoea, which may be very watery, or contain blood or mucus
- feeling sick or vomiting
- abdominal cramps, bloating, stomach rumbling or abdominal pain
- loss of appetite
- muscle aches
These symptoms can sometimes be caused by other problems, such as other types of infections, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis or side-effect of medicines. However, these problems will usually cause symptoms that last for a lot longer than gastroenteritis.
The time it takes to recover depends on which infection you have. Some viral infections only last a day or two, while other infections can take a week or more to recover from. Some infections can even last for several weeks, but these are uncommon in the UK.
Most people with gastroenteritis can recover at home and won’t need any treatment, as long as they keep hydrated.
You may need to see your GP or stay in hospital if you become very unwell or dehydrated.
For children with gastroenteritis, diarrhoea usually lasts for five to seven days and stops within two weeks. Vomiting usually lasts for one to two days, stopping within three days. But if your child’s symptoms continue for longer than this, seek medical advice.
Diagnosis of gastroenteritis
Try to manage your symptoms at home because gastroenteritis is often very contagious. It’s best to keep away from doctors’ surgeries and hospitals so you don’t spread it to people who are at high risk of complications.
If your symptoms persist, contact your surgery. The surgery will get your GP, or an available GP to phone you. He or she may ask:
- about your medical history
- how often you’ve vomited
- how often you’ve had a bowel movement and the consistency
- whether you have any blood in your faeces
- how often you’re passing urine
- about any abdominal pain
- whether you’ve been able to keep down any food or drink
- whether you’ve had contact with someone who has had similar symptoms
- whether you’ve been abroad recently
Your GP, or the health professional you spoke to, will be able to access whether you need to be seen. If you do see your GP, they will likely check your temperature, blood pressure, heart rate and how quickly you’re breathing. They will check whether your abdomen is tender and look for signs that you may have become dehydrated.
Your GP may ask for a sample of your faeces to send for laboratory testing.
Treatment of gastroenteritis
What to eat and drink
If you have mild gastroenteritis, drinks such as water or squash will help to keep you hydrated. Sports drinks can also be good to sip on, as they contain glucose and often some electrolytes. Don’t have fizzy drinks until you have recovered, as they won’t help to keep you hydrated.
Once you’re hydrated, have small, light meals when you feel hungry, but don't have fatty or spicy foods. Fruit juices or soup may help you to replace lost salts, but it’s best not to give young children fruit juices while they are unwell.
Sometimes, gastroenteritis can lead to lactose intolerance for a few days or weeks, especially in children. This means that lactose in dairy products may make you feel bloated, gassy, uncomfortable or have diarrhoea. It’s best to avoid dairy products until your gastroenteritis improves. However, avoiding dairy products can be difficult in babies and toddlers, as milk is often the only thing they are still keen to have.
Oral rehydration solutions
Oral rehydration solutions can help your body to replace lost water. Most people can recover from gastroenteritis without needing an oral rehydration solution. They can be particularly helpful:
- for people over 60
- people who are frail or have other illnesses
Oral rehydration solutions come as a powder that you add to water to make a drink. They have the right mix of sugars and electrolytes (minerals and salts) to help you replace lost water and salt.
Certain probiotics (supplements or foods containing ‘good’ bacteria) may help to reduce the time you have diarrhoea for. See our frequently asked questions for more information.
If you have gastroenteritis, you may well have an infection that you could pass on to others. Stay at home and don’t go into work for at least 48 hours or until you’re better. Make sure you wash your hands regularly and disinfect surfaces and door handles.
If your child has gastroenteritis, keep them off school until they’re better. Stay away from hospitals and doctors’ surgeries if possible so you don’t spread it to people who are at high risk of complications. If you’re feeling very unwell and think you need to see a GP, call your surgery and they will advise you what’s best to do.
Medicines to stop diarrhoea such as loperamide (eg Imodium) are only recommended for people over four. These medications slow down your bowels. They only prevent diarrhoea temporarily, but they can be useful in some situations, for example, if you need to travel. Don’t take these medicines if you have blood or mucus in your faeces or if you have a high fever, as they could make you more ill.
If you have severe vomiting, your GP may prescribe you a medicine called an antiemetic to help stop this.
Your GP won’t usually prescribe antibiotics unless a sample of your faeces that has been tested shows that antibiotics would help. This is because antibiotics don’t help to treat some types of gastroenteritis (those caused by viruses, for example). Antibiotics are usually not needed to help you to recover.
Hospital treatmentIf you have become very dehydrated, you may need to be admitted to hospital. At hospital, fluid can be put directly into your bloodstream via a catheter put into your vein (intravenously) to rehydrate you.
Causes of gastroenteritis
You can pick up an infection in different ways. These include:
- eating raw, undercooked or contaminated food, such as meat, shellfish or unpasteurised milk – see our frequently asked questions for more information
- from another person – either by inhaling infected particles in the air or touching infected surfaces
- by drinking contaminated water, particularly in countries that lack clean drinking water
- touching an infected animal
If you take antibiotics, you may also be more likely to get diarrhoea. This is because antibiotics can upset the natural balance of bacteria in your gut, letting an infection take hold. Antibiotics can also sometimes directly cause diarrhoea.
Viruses are a common cause of gastroenteritis, particularly in children. These include:
- rotavirus – this is the most common cause of gastroenteritis in babies
- norovirus – this is very contagious, but the infection usually passes in a couple of days
- adenovirus – this is another common cause of gastroenteritis in young children
Viral infections can be seasonal, meaning they happen more often at certain times of year. For example, more people get norovirus infections during the winter and spring.
Bacteria that can cause gastroenteritis are most commonly caught from eating contaminated food. Different bacteria that cause food poisoning include Salmonella, Campylobacter and Escherichia coli (E. coli). They tend to be caught from eating food that is raw or not properly cooked, such as raw meat or milk.
Parasites rarely cause gastroenteritis in the UK. You might pick them up when travelling abroad or from animals.
Complications of gastroenteritis
Possible complications of gastroenteritis include:
- dehydration and incorrect levels of electrolytes (minerals and salts) – see our frequently asked questions for more information
- lactose intolerance, which causes sensitivity to dairy products
- malnutrition (not eating sufficient food, or the right balance of food)
- haemolytic uraemic syndrome, which can cause serious kidney problems
- irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
Young children are more likely to get complications than adults. You’re also more likely to get complications from gastroenteritis if:
- you’re elderly
- you have other health problems
- you have a weak immune system
If you become very unwell, you may need to be admitted to hospital. Contact your GP if you:
- have had vomiting or diarrhoea for more than a few days, and you can’t keep down any fluids
- have blood in your diarrhoea
- have a fever
- have had diarrhoea for more than 10 days
- can’t control your bowels
- have signs of dehydration, such as a dry mouth, muscle cramps, passing little urine, sunken eyes, confusion or irritability
- have recently travelled abroad
- have other long-term conditions, such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), diabetes or IBS
- don’t have someone who can look after you at home and your symptoms are severe or you’re elderly
Prevention of gastroenteritis
To reduce your chance of getting or spreading gastroenteritis, follow these tips.
- Always wash your hands with soap and water after going to the toilet or changing your baby’s nappy.
- Always wash your hands before and after preparing or eating food.
- Wash soiled clothing or bed linen separately from other laundry and at the highest temperature possible (60°C or higher if possible). Only half fill the washing machine, so that everything is thoroughly cleaned and rinsed.
- Clean toilet seats, flush handles, taps, surfaces and door handles daily with hot water and disinfectant. Use a cloth that can be thrown away or one that is only used for this purpose.
- Don't share towels and flannels.
- Don’t go swimming for at least two weeks after your diarrhoea has stopped.
Before travelling abroad, check what precautions you should take for the country you’re travelling to at www.travelhealthpro.org.uk. You may need vaccinations or to drink bottled water, for example.
FAQ: How can I reduce the risk of getting gastroenteritis while abroad?
Be careful about what you eat and drink while on holiday to reduce your chance of getting ill.
Infections can be picked up from contaminated food and water. While away, be especially careful by:
- eating at restaurants with a good hygiene reputation
- being cautious about eating food from street vendors, buffets and fast food restaurants
- choosing food that is served piping hot
- avoiding raw vegetables or food that has been left out
- eating fruit that you have peeled yourself
- avoiding ice (unless you know it is made from clean water)
- drinking water and other drinks from bottles only (with an intact seal); boiling or chemically purifying water; or using a reliable filter.
Before travelling abroad, plan what you can take with you in case you become ill. You may wish to take oral hydration salts (eg Dioralyte) or antidiarrhoea tablets (eg Imodium).
Also, make sure you get any travel vaccinations that you need before you go. Book an appointment at your GP surgery or a travel clinic four to six weeks before you travel. However, if you’re travelling sooner, it’s still worth booking an appointment.
If you have any questions or concerns, talk to your travel health adviser, GP or pharmacist before you go abroad.
FAQ: How should I prepare food to stop me or others from getting gastroenteritis?
Gastroenteritis is often caused by eating food that has not been prepared or stored safely. Following good food hygiene can reduce the chance that you, and the people you cook for, will become ill.
To prevent gastroenteritis, follow good hygiene standards when preparing and cooking food. The following food hygiene tips will help you to stay safe.
- Cook all meats, eggs and seafood fully.
- Thoroughly rinse vegetables and salads.
- Keep uncooked food well away from cooked food.
- Wash all utensils, chopping boards and surfaces with hot soapy water straight after they have been in contact with raw meat.
- Wash your hands before handling food, before eating and drinking, and after handling pets.
- If you reheat food, ensure it’s piping hot.
- Drink only pasteurised milk, and eat cheese and yoghurt made from pasteurised milk.
If you work around open food, for example, if you’re a waitress or a chef, it’s important that you don’t work if you have symptoms of gastroenteritis. This is because you can contaminate food or surfaces the food may come into contact with, which can spread the infection. Tell your manager about your symptoms and don’t return to work until you’ve been clear from symptoms for at least 48 hours.
FAQ: How can I tell if my child's gastroenteritis is making them dehydrated?
Gastroenteritis can cause babies and children to become dehydrated quickly, which can be dangerous. Signs of dehydration include a dry mouth, passing little urine, being lethargic and irritable, and loss of skin elasticity. If your child has these symptoms, seek medical advice.
In babies and young children, gastroenteritis can be more dangerous because they become dehydrated more easily.
Symptoms of dehydration include:
- being irritable and tired
- urinating less
- loss of skin elasticity – when gently pinched, the skin doesn't immediately spring back into position
- dry mouth
- sunken eyes
- fast heart rate
- rapid, shallow breathing
- blood taking longer to return to hands or feet when gently squeezed
If your child’s dehydration gets worse and they go into shock they may:
- have pale or mottled skin
- have cold fingers and toes
- have low blood pressure
- not be fully conscious
Make sure your child gets urgent medical attention if they have these signs – they may need to be admitted to hospital.
FAQ: What are probiotics and can they help if i have gastroenteritis?
Probiotics are ‘good’ bacteria found in certain foods (such as live yoghurts) and food supplements. Some probiotics might help you to recover from diarrhoea, but more research is needed before we can be sure.
Bacteria are often thought of as harmful and a cause of illness, but there are many good bacteria that can help to keep your gut healthy.
Good bacteria in your gut help to prevent harmful organisms from growing there. Gastroenteritis is usually caused by harmful bacteria, viruses or parasites. Probiotic bacteria such as Lactobacillus might help to correct the balance of bacteria in your gut. This might help to relieve symptoms of diarrhoea and speed up your recovery. They might also help to prevent some types of gastroenteritis, such as traveller’s diarrhoea.
However, more research is needed before we can be sure, because not all studies have found that probiotics made a difference.
- Food Standards Agency
020 7276 8829
- The British Dietetic Association
0121 200 8080
- Travel Health Pro
020 3447 5943
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