What is gastroenteritis?
Gastroenteritis is an infection of the digestive tract (also called the gastrointestinal or GI tract) that causes throwing up, diarrhea, or both. The stomach and intestines are the main organs of the digestive tract. People sometimes make the mistake of calling gastroenteritis "stomach flu." But it isn't a "flu" and has nothing to do with influenza Influenza (Flu) Influenza, often called the flu, is a viral infection that affects your lungs and airways. Flu symptoms are a little bit like the common cold but are much more severe. Influenza, often called... read more (flu).
Gastroenteritis is the most common GI problem in children
Children with gastroenteritis throw up and have diarrhea, belly cramps, and fever
Throwing up and having diarrhea, especially when they occur together, can lead to dehydration (not having enough water or other fluids in the body), which can cause serious problems
You can help prevent gastroenteritis by keeping up with your child's vaccines and by having children wash their hands often
Gastroenteritis is treated by replacing water and electrolytes Overview of Electrolytes Electrolytes are minerals that circulate in your blood. These minerals are also in your stomach juices, in your stool (poop), in your urine, and inside your body's tissues. Salt (sodium) is... read more , usually by drinking a special liquid made for children with gastroenteritis
Children who can't keep down fluids should see a doctor—they may need to get fluids directly into a vein (IV)
What causes gastroenteritis?
Gastroenteritis is most often caused by a virus (such as rotavirus). It can also be caused by bacteria or parasites.
Children can get gastroenteritis by:
Touching infected children or their toys, and then putting their fingers in their mouth
Being near a sick child who is sneezing or spitting
Eating food or drinking liquid that has bacteria in it (this is called food poisoning)
Drinking unpasteurized milk or juice (unpasteurized means it wasn't heated to kill germs)
Touching reptiles, birds, frogs, or salamanders that carry bacteria
Eating certain plants or medicines
Swallowing infected water from swimming pools, water parks, or streams
What are the symptoms of gastroenteritis?
Not feeling hungry
Sometimes, certain types of gastroenteritis cause bloody diarrhea. This is more serious, and you should take your child to the doctor right away.
What are the complications of gastroenteritis?
The main complication is:
Dehydration Dehydration in Children Everyone needs water and certain chemicals (electrolytes) to be healthy. Normally, you drink fluids to meet the need, and being thirsty tells you when you need more fluids. But babies and very... read more is too little water or other fluid in the body. This can be dangerous. Babies are more likely to get dehydrated because they're smaller.
Your baby is dehydrated and needs to see a doctor right away if your baby:
Has a sunken soft spot on the top of the head (all babies have a soft spot, but it shouldn't be sunken)
Has sunken eyes
Has a dry mouth
Has no tears when crying
Isn't peeing much
Is less alert and has less energy
Your child is dehydrated and needs to see a doctor right away if your child:
Isn't peeing much and hasn't peed for 6 hours or more
Is cranky and sluggish
Has a dry mouth
How can doctors tell if my child has gastroenteritis?
Your child's symptoms and a physical exam help doctors tell if your child has gastroenteritis. Usually no blood tests or stool tests are needed. Sometimes your doctor needs to know what kind of infection caused the gastroenteritis and will take a cotton swab of the diarrhea for testing.
How do doctors treat gastroenteritis?
For babies, doctors treat gastroenteritis by having them:
Continue to breastfeed or drink formula
Drink a special rehydration solution (oral electrolyte solution—powders or liquids are sold in pharmacies and grocery stores)
For older children, doctors' advice is:
Have your child drink fluids, such as an oral electrolyte solution on the first day of sickness—teens should drink a sports drink instead of soda or juice, but an oral electrolyte solution is preferable.
If your child is throwing up, give small sips of fluid every 10 or 15 minutes—if your child doesn't throw up, gradually give a little more fluid
In a 24-hour period, your child should drink at least 1½ ounces of fluid for every pound of body weight
If your child has diarrhea, give more fluid than usual
Have your child eat a normal diet if able—special foods aren't necessary
If your child has diarrhea, offer less dairy (such as milk or butter)
Your child’s doctor may give:
Fluids into the vein (IV) if your child is dehydrated
Medicines to prevent throwing up or to help slow down diarrhea
Antibiotics if the cause is certain kinds of bacteria
Antiparasitic drugs if the cause is a parasite
How can I prevent gastroenteritis?
To help prevent gastroenteritis:
Make sure your child gets the rotavirus vaccine Rotavirus Vaccine The rotavirus vaccine is a live-virus vaccine that helps protect against gastroenteritis caused by rotavirus, which causes vomiting, diarrhea, and, if symptoms persist, dehydration and organ... read more , which is one of the standard vaccines Childhood Vaccination Schedules Vaccination protects children against many infectious diseases. Vaccines contain either noninfectious components of bacteria or viruses or whole forms of these organisms that have been weakened... read more
Have children regularly wash their hands
Store foods properly (keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot), and don't let your child eat food that has been sitting out longer than an hour
Keep diaper changing areas clean (and regularly disinfect with a solution of ¼ cup bleach in 1 gallon of water)
Don’t let children or babies with weak immune systems touch reptiles, birds, or amphibians
Teach your child to avoid swallowing water when swimming
To help prevent the spread of gastroenteritis:
A child with loose stools (diarrhea) should stay home from school or daycare and shouldn't swim in public pools or other public swimming areas
Check your child’s diaper often and change it away from the public pools and swimming areas