Gastroenteritis describes inflammation of the inside lining of the stomach and intestines.
The term gastroenteritis is commonly used to describe a sudden infection that affects the stomach and intestines. Gastroenteritis can also be caused by chemical or toxin exposure.
Causes of this condition include:
This condition commonly causes:
Diagnosis is usually made by the person's medical history and physical exam. In some cases, the individual's stool or blood may be tested. These tests can help determine the exact cause of an infection or food poisoning. This may be important in tracing a public outbreak thought to be related to a common food source. A blood test can measure the level of lead in the blood if lead poisoning is suspected.
Many cases cannot be prevented. Safe food handling techniques can prevent cases due to food poisoning. Frequent hand washing and avoiding people with diarrhea can help prevent the spread of infections that cause this condition. Avoiding lead can prevent cases due to lead poisoning.
The main risk of this condition is dehydration. If the fluid lost through vomiting and diarrhea cannot be replaced, dehydration can be severe. Death may even occur. This is a common occurrence in developing nations. Occasionally, a condition known as the hemolytic uremic syndrome may occur after an infection. This condition may cause kidney damage. Most people recover within a few days and have no long-term effects.
Cases due to an infection are often contagious. Other causes pose little risk to others.
The main treatment of this condition is fluid replacement. If a person is able to keep liquids down, he or she simply needs to take in extra fluids. However, a person may vomit repeatedly, making it impossible to keep anything down. In this case, the person may need fluid administered directly into a vein with an intravenous line. Antibiotics are used in some cases, but not routinely, because they can make the condition worse. Lead poisoning can be treated with chelation, which involves giving medications that cause the lead to be excreted into the urine. For example, a medication called succimer, or DMSA, may be used.
Antibiotics may cause allergic reactions or stomach upset. Succimer may cause a rash or a metallic taste in the mouth.
Most people recover quickly. An individual can usually return to normal activities as soon as the symptoms subside. Someone who develops hemolytic uremic syndrome after an infection may need further treatment for kidney damage.
Most people can monitor their symptoms at home. Someone who is very ill or dehydrated may need to be admitted to the hospital. This allows closer monitoring and further treatment as needed.
Author:Adam Brochert, MD
Editor:Slon, Stephanie, BA
Reviewer:Gail Hendrickson, RN, BS
The Merck Manual, 1995, Berkow et al.