Gastroenteritis is a stimulation and inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract and is characterized by well-known symptoms of “sour stomach”. The most common cause is a virus, and it is easily transmitted from a person to person with a physical contact, i.e. not with just food or drink.
Such infections are the most common cause of vomiting and/or diarrhea, which lasts 24 to 36 hours, and are often referred to as stomach flu. Gastroenteritis can also develop if you eat or drink something that is polluted by microbes. Food poisoning is also possible if you eat something that contains a poisonous substance – for example, an inedible fungi.
In addition, some types of food – e.g. shells, strawberries, eggs, pork and many other – may be “toxic” to individuals who are allergic to them. Such food poisoning, although not induced by microbial infection, can cause very severe gastroenteritis attacks.
A further possible cause of gastroenteritis is a change in the normal bacterial population in the digestive tract. If you have been ill or have drastically changed your diet due to illness (e.g. when visiting another country), the balance may be disturbed, so some strains of bacteria will multiply to the account of others and disrupt the digestive system functions. Antibiotics can have similar effects because they act selectively on the bacterial population of the digestive tract and hinder the natural balance in it.
The range of gastroenteritis symptoms is very wide – from mild nausea, followed by diarrhea, to severe illness. You may only vomit once or twice, and have an uncomfortable soft stool several times – which should not interfere with your daily life. However, frequent vomiting is also possible, with frequent watery diarrhea and abdominal pain and spasms, with elevated temperature and complete weakness. In really difficult cases, as is sometimes possible, a strong gastroenteritis attack will completely ”crush” the patient. However, all symptoms of gastroenteritis usually disappear within 48 hours.
Gastroenteritis is so common that it accounts for almost 10% of visits to a general practitioner. Viral form, like many other viral diseases, prevails in the winter and usually takes the form of small epidemics. Thus, for example, children who are being brought home due to a local outbreak at school may also infect other members of the family who will then transfer the disease to the neighbors and so on.
Dangers depend on the cause – e.g. the type and number of cause (germs), or the amount and toxicity of the poisonous substances in food – as well as the age and general health of the patient. The risk of weakness and complete exhaustion is greatest in infants and young children up to 18 months old and in elderly people. The result of frequent diarrhea is often dehydration, which disturbs the chemical balance of the body and, if the appropriate measures are not taken, can cause shock.
In otherwise healthy people, several seizures of vomiting and diarrhea are nothing more serious than the clogged nose and cough at a regular fever. However, if the patient experiences severe stomach ache (not just occasional cramps), symptoms may be signs of some other abdominal disorder, such as appendicitis, requiring urgent medical intervention.
What to do?
If the described self-help measures do not help (or at least improve your condition) within two or three days, contact your doctor. (Ths applies only to adults; if your newborns and/or toddlers have these symptoms, take them to the doctor immediately!) After examining you and finding out what were (and where were) you eating and drinking, and whether someone in your family or colleagues at work suffers from stomach disturbances, your doctor may decide to send a sample of your stool to the lab.
However, it is more likely that the diagnosis will confirm your answers to doctor’s questions and his or her findings regarding your health condition. However, a stool analysis is needed if diarrhea lasts longer to determine if gastroenteritis is not the result of some unusual gastrointestinal infections such as amoebic dysentery in your case.
Self-help: if you have gastroenteritis, stay home, sleep and drink plenty of fluids until the onset of discomfort; to avoid dehydration due to diarrhea, you will probably have to drink at least another half a liter of fluid a day. Do not eat anything and just drink water for the first 24 hours (a few swallows about every 15 minutes if you are suffering from vomiting). After that, start drinking diluted fruit juices. Do not put sugar in them, because sugar can prolong the diarrhea. If you have an abundant watery chair, add one teaspoon of salt to each liter of diluted fruit juice. This will prevent dehydration by maintaining the chemical balance of the blood. Since you have been following these tips for about two days, you will probably be able to go to normal nutrition.
Do not take aspirin or other pain killers. These agents can aggravate the condition (as well as antibiotics, which disturb the intestinal bacterial balance and thus exacerbate diarrhea). Remember also that gastroenteritis is often the result of poor hygiene and is easily transmitted to others. Therefore, in order to avoid food contamination, do not forget to wash your hands after the bathroom and before preparing the food.
Professional help: there are no specific therapies for gastroenteritis. If the diagnosis is unquestioned, and nausea and diarrhea are not the result of some other general infection or appendicitis, your doctor will probably advise you to continue to apply these self-help measures. If you vomit very heavily, your doctor may give you an injection (or tablet) of antiemetics (a medicine used for treating nausea and vomiting). In cases of persistent diarrhea kaolin sometimes helpthe, or the drug that slows the bowel activity. Any treatment of this type is interrupted as soon as the bowel resumes normal functioning.