Gastroenteritis is often mistaken for something more common

Whenever many of us are sick with diarrhea and vomiting, our amateur diagnosis often leads us to believe we have the stomach flu. While that assumption is nearly always correct, sometimes it is not.

Gastroenteritis occurs when intestines are irritated and inflamed. The main symptoms are diarrhea and vomiting, but gastroenteritis often includes stomach pain, cramping, fever, nausea and a headache.

Dehydration is also a common symptom of gastroenteritis, causing dry skin, dry mouth, feeling lightheaded, and thirst. Infants and young children have vomiting, refusal to breastfeed, take formula, or eat. The number of wet diapers or urination decreases.  Typically, vomiting will cease within 24 hours, though diarrhea may last up to 10 days.  Get plenty of rest and drink more fluids than usual.  Water for adults and older children is best and Pedialyte for infants, not water. Avoid sugary drinks and fruit juices that worsen diarrhea. When hunger returns, simple foods like saltines, clear soups, toast, JELL-O, bananas and rice are best. If vomiting returns, go back to just fluids for a while. Infants can continue breastfeeding or return to formula as long as they’re not vomiting - diarrhea will not worsen.  For a few days, avoid caffeine, alcohol, and spicy and fatty foods

For fever or aches and pains with the stomach flu or gastroenteritis, physicians recommend taking acetaminophen (Tylenol)—ibuprofen can irritate the stomach further.

Parents should keep children with the stomach flu or gastroenteritis away from day care and school until all symptoms are better.  Over the counter medicines for vomiting and diarrhea should not be used for children -- your health care provider may prescribe medicine for vomiting. Rotavirus used to be the most common cause of diarrhea in infants and young children, but two vaccines against this virus given to infants have reduced the number of cases in the US by more than half in the last decade.

Salmonella and campylobacter bacteria are the two most common bacterial causes of gastroenteritis found in the U.S. They are mainly spread via undercooked poultry or poultry juices, or eggs.  Pet reptiles and live poultry can also transmit the infection.

Gastroenteritis is often contracted through someone who has the virus, contaminated food or water and unwashed hands after going to the bathroom or changing a diaper.  Shigella is a bacterial intestinal infection that can spread through day care centers.  Intestinal parasites can also cause gastroenteritis and so can medications including antibiotics, laxatives and antacids.

If you are in need of a pediatrician for your child or a primary care physician for yourself, please call 317-880-8687 or visit www.eskenazihealth.edu/doctors.

Dr. Elizabeth Cobbs

Medicine/Pediatric Physician at Eskenazi Health