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Gastroenteritis

Alternate Names

  • enterogastritis
  • intestinal flu
  • viral enteritis
  • Digestive system

Definition

Gastroenteritis describes inflammation of the inside lining of the stomach and intestines.

What is going on in the body?

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.

Risks

What are the causes and risks of the condition?

Causes of this condition include:
  • infection. In children, infection is usually due to viruses such as the rotavirus. Bacteria such as Campylobacter are more common causes of the condition in adults.
  • food poisoning, usually due to toxins made by bacteria. In these cases, the bacteria actually do not cause an infection. However, the toxin produced by the bacteria can get into food and make a person sick. This occurs most commonly in staphylococcal food poisoning.
  • exposure to chemicals or toxins. This occurs in sudden lead poisoning or puffer fish poisoning.
  • drug reactions from medications such as antibiotics

Prevention

What can be done to prevent the condition?

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 exposure to paint in old houses, car batteries, and other sources of lead can prevent cases due to lead poisoning.

Diagnosed

How is the condition diagnosed?

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 disease outbreak in the community 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.

Long Term Effects

What are the long-term effects of the condition?

The main risk of this condition is dehydration. If the fluid lost through vomiting and diarrhea cannot be replaced, dehydration can be severe, and even fatal in extreme cases. This is a common occurrence in developing nations.
Occasionally, a condition known as the hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) may occur after an infection. This condition may cause kidney damage.
Most people recover from gastroenteritis within a few days and have no long-term effects.

Other Risks

What are the risks to others?

Cases due to an infection are often contagious. Other causes pose little risk to others.

Treatments

What are the treatments for the condition?

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 in some instances 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 (DMSA), acts by this mechanism.

Side Effects

What are the side effects of the treatments?

Antibiotics may cause allergic reactions or stomach upset. Succimer may cause a rash or a metallic taste in the mouth.

After Treatment

What happens after treatment for the condition?

Most people recover quickly. An individual can usually return to normal activities as soon as the symptoms subside. Someone who develops hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) after an infection may need further treatment for kidney damage.

Monitor

How is the condition monitored?

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.

Sources

The Merck Manual, 1995, Berkow et al.

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