You are undoubtedly familiar with gastroenteritis for having had it or knowing someone who has.
What is gastroenteritis?
Gastroenteritis is an infection that affects the digestive tract, more specifically the stomach and the intestines. These organs become inflamed, which leads to the symptoms that are known to characterize the infection.
Gastroenteritis is usually caused by a virus, which is transmitted from one person to another through direct contact or through contaminated objects. Epidemics of gastroenteritis, which are common during fall and winter, usually originate from a virus.
Gastroenteritis can also be caused by bacteria. This type of infection is most often caused by the consumption of contaminated food, such as:
- undercooked beef (E. coli infection)
- undercooked chicken (salmonella infection)
- water, fruits and vegetables (especially in poor sanitary conditions)
In rare cases, gastroenteritis can be caused by a parasite.
What are the symptoms of gastroenteritis?
The main symptoms of gastroenteritis vary, but the most common are:
- abdominal cramps
- headache, and
- feeling of general malaise or weakness
Symptoms of gastroenteritis usually last between one and three days. The affected person remains contagious as long as symptoms are present and at least 48 hours after they end.
What is the basic treatment of gastroenteritis?
Although unpleasant, gastroenteritis is usually harmless. However, its main complication is dehydration, which can have serious consequences when it goes untreated. Therefore, the basic treatment for gastroenteritis is rehydration.
There are ready-to-use rehydration solutions available in-pharmacy. This type of solution replenishes the body with water, salt, and other elements it needs to function properly.
To avoid vomiting, it is preferable to start with small quantities of fluids. You can begin rehydration by taking a tablespoon of fluid approximately every 10 minutes. Then, gradually increase the quantity of fluids. Ideally, you should drink between one and two litres of fluids per day (rehydration solution, juice, broth, etc.).
After a few hours of the liquid diet and once symptoms begin to dissipate, you can gradually return to solid foods. It is preferable to begin with foods that are easy to digest, such as white rice, soda crackers or toast.
If you are suffering from gastroenteritis, it is advisable to rest. This will allow your body to get over the hump more quickly.
What role does medication play?
When gastroenteritis is caused by a virus, it is not possible to heal it with medication. However, certain medications can be used to relieve typical symptoms of the infection such as fever, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Always talk to your pharmacist before taking medication such as an antipyretic (against fever), antinauseant (against nausea and vomiting) or an antidiarrheal (against diarrhea). Regardless of the methods you use to get better, it is important to speak to a competent healthcare professional first.
When should I consult a doctor?
In most cases, gastroenteritis can be treated at home. However, some symptoms indicate that you should see a doctor, for instance:
- bloody or dark stools
- bloody vomit (vomit can contain particles that resemble dark coffee grounds)
- severe vomiting and diarrhea for 24 hours
- absence of urine for more than 12 hours
- presence of any other unusual or worrisome symptoms (confusion, drowsiness, loss of consciousness, etc.)
Moreover, you must be on the lookout for signs of dehydration. If you have any doubt, see a doctor promptly, as dehydration can have serious repercussions, especially in babies and young children, pregnant women, and the elderly (among others). Signs of dehydration in babies and young children include:
- decreased urine
- absence of tears
- dryness of the skin, mouth or tongue
- sunken eyes
- sunken fontanel (soft area on the top of a baby’s head)
In adults, some of the signs and symptoms of dehydration include:
- increased thirst
- dryness of the lips, tongue, and mouth
- sunken eyes
- loss of skin elasticity (when pinched, skin is slow to regain its initial shape)
- decreased urine
Speak to your pharmacist for additional information about gastroenteritis and the ways to prevent and treat it.