This factsheet is for people who have gastroenteritis, or who would like information about it.

Gastroenteritis is inflammation of the stomach or bowels caused by an infection, and can lead to symptoms such as diarrhoea and vomiting.

Read below for more information about gastroenteritis.

Published by Bupa's Health Information Team, September 2010.



About gastroenteritis

Diarrhoeal disease caused by gastroenteritis is the second leading cause of death in children under five worldwide. Globally, there are about two billion cases every year. Gastroenteritis can affect anyone, but it's more common in babies and young children. If you have gastroenteritis, it generally goes without you needing medical treatment. However, if a baby or a young child has gastroenteritis it can be more dangerous because he or she becomes dehydrated more easily.

Your stomach and bowels are known collectively as your gastrointestinal tract - or gut. Gastroenteritis is an infection of your gut. You can get an infection by eating or drinking food that is contaminated with bacteria, viruses or parasites, or from other people with an infection. Bacteria, viruses and parasites can damage the cells lining the inner surface of your gut and stop it working as it should.

Certain bacteria or viruses may also produce poisons called toxins that can irritate your gut and cause it to produce excess fluid. This can cause the symptoms of gastroenteritis, such as diarrhoea.

Complications of gastroenteritis

Complications from gastroenteritis occur mainly in young children or in adults who are over the age of 65, have had gastroenteritis for a long time, or who have a weakened immune system.

Possible complications of gastroenteritis include:

  • dehydration – this can be life-threatening if severe
  • malnutrition
  • irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which may develop later on

See a doctor if you or your child:

  • have severe pain or pain that doesn't respond to over-the-counter painkillers
  • have vomiting or diarrhoea that continues for more than a few days, or you can't drink or eat without being sick
  • have blood or mucus in your diarrhoea
  • have signs of dehydration, including a very dry mouth, muscle cramps, reduced urine, sunken eyes and, later, confusion or irritability
  • have recently travelled to another country or area
  • can't take medicines you usually take for other conditions without being sick



The main causes of gastroenteritis are infection with a virus, bacteria or parasite.


Viruses that can cause gastroenterititis include:

  • rotavirus
  • norovirus
  • enteric adenovirus
  • hepatitis A
Viral infections can be seasonal. There is a peak of rotavirus and norovirus infections during the winter months.


The most common cause of bacterial gastroenteritis is food poisoning. Different bacteria that cause food poisoning include Salmonella, Campylobacter and Escherichia coli (E. coli).


Common parasitic causes of gastroenteritis include Cryptosporidium, Entamoeba histolytica and Giardia. Parasites tend to be more of a problem in less developed countries.

  • Gastroenteritis infections are transmitted:
  • in drinking water contaminated with human faeces, for example from sewage, septic tanks and latrines
  • in contaminated food
  • from person to person - this happens if an infected person goes to the toilet and doesn't wash their hands properly afterwards, before handling food or touching other people
  • when an individual infected with a virus sneezes or coughs, as another person could inhale the virus
  • in shellfish harvested from polluted waters

Symptoms and diagnosis

Symptoms and diagnosis

Symptoms of gastroenteritis

The time between catching the infection and the start of symptoms (the incubation period) depends on the type of infection you have. It can range from one hour to a few weeks but it's most often between one and three days.

You may have symptoms including:

  • diarrhoea, which may contain blood and mucus, or be watery, greasy or frothy
  • feeling sick or vomiting
  • abdominal (tummy) cramps, bloating or pain
  • a fever
  • The time it takes to recover depends on what infection you have. Most people recover within approximately 10 days. However, severe infections may last for many weeks. It's important to see a doctor if your symptoms last for more than a week.
In adults and older children, the symptoms of gastroenteritis may be confused with other conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis.

Diagnosis of gastroenteritis

The doctor will ask about your symptoms and examine you. He or she may ask about your medical history. It's important to tell your doctor if you have visited any other countries recently and any vaccinations you have had. Your doctor may ask you for a sample of faeces (stool sample) to send for laboratory testing.

Treatment and prevention

Treatment and prevention

Self-help and diet

If you have gastroenteritis you can usually stay at home until your symptoms get better.

The most important thing you should do is replace the fluids and salts you have lost, to prevent dehydration.

If you have mild gastroenteritis, drinks such as water and squash will help keep you hydrated. If you feel well enough, you can have small, light meals; however don’t have fatty or spicy foods, or fizzy drinks, until you have recovered.

If you have a more severe infection, use an oral re-hydration solution (eg Dioralyte), which can be purchased from a pharmacy (chemist or drugstore). This is a powder that is made up into a solution by adding water. It contains the right balance of sugars and salts for your body to encourage rehydration. Eat foods that are high in carbohydrates, such as rice or toast until you feel like you can eat as usual. Salty foods such as soup can help replace salt lost from your body.

Probiotics (foods containing live, beneficial bacteria) can help to reduce the duration of diarrhoea.

If your baby has gastroenteritis and you're breastfeeding, continue to breastfeed and give oral rehydration as well, if needed. A child with gastroenteritis will need to be drinking enough first before you encourage him or her to start eating again.


Medicines to stop diarrhoea such as loperamide are only recommended for adults. These medications slow down bowel movements, but have no effect on the excess fluid. Diarrhoea is only prevented temporarily until you stop taking these medicines, then the excess fluid will be passed as diarrhoea. However, they are useful if you absolutely need to travel and won't be near a toilet.

Your doctor may prescribe a medicine to help you stop being sick called an anti-emetic. Anti-emetics can be helpful if you have severe vomiting. If you're in pain, take an over-the-counter painkiller, such as paracetamol (acetaminophen) or ibuprofen. Always read the patient information that comes with your medicine and if you have any questions, ask your pharmacist for advice.

Antibiotics are usually not effective for gastroenteritis. However, if your doctor suspects that you have a bacterial infection, he or she may ask you for a faeces sample to send for laboratory testing. The results will help to determine if you need antibiotics.

Availability and use of different treatments may vary from country to country. Ask your doctor for advice on your treatment options.

Hospital treatment

If you have lost so much fluid that you're very dehydrated, you may need to be admitted to hospital, so that fluids can be replaced directly into your bloodstream via a catheter into your vein (intravenously).

Prevention of gastroenteritis

If you are staying in a country where you are not sure of the quality of the drinking water, make sure you always drink bottled water.

Always wash your hands with soap after going to the toilet. It's also important to practise good food hygiene. Make sure you have any necessary vaccinations before you travel to other countries.

If you have gastroenteritis, you can help to prevent spreading the infection to others by taking the following steps.

  • Hygienically dispose of, or properly clean, all soiled items such as towels or soiled nappies if your baby is ill.
  • Clean the toilet with disinfectant.
  • Don't share towels and flannels.
  • Don't prepare food for others.
If you have gastroenteritis you may be infectious to others. Stay away from work, school or college for at least 48 hours after your symptoms have stopped. Children shouldn't go swimming for two weeks after the diarrhoea has stopped.



This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been peer reviewed by Bupa doctors. This content was compiled by Bupa based on clinical information and practice current as at the stated date of publication. Content is likely to reflect clinical practice in a particular geographical region (as indicated by the sources cited) – accordingly, it may not reflect clinical practice in the reader’s country of habitation. This content is intended for general information only and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. Photos and videos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition.

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