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First aid: Gastroenteritis

Gastroenteritis is an inflammation of your stomach and intestines. Common causes are:

  • Viruses.
  • Food or water contaminated by bacteria or parasites.
  • Reaction to a new food. Young children may develop signs and symptoms for this reason. Infants who are breast-fed may even react to a change in their mothers' diets.
  • Side effect from medications.

Characteristic signs and symptoms include:

  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Bloating
  • Low-grade fever (sometimes)

Depending on the cause of the inflammation, symptoms may last from one day to longer than a week.

If you suspect gastroenteritis in yourself:

  • Stop eating and drinking for a few hours to let your stomach settle.
  • Drink plenty of liquids, such as a sports drink or water, to prevent dehydration. If you have trouble tolerating liquids, take them in frequent sips. Make sure that you're urinating normally, and that your urine is light and clear and not dark. Infrequent passage of dark urine is a sign of dehydration. Dizziness or lightheadedness also are signs of dehydration. If any of these symptoms occur and you can't drink enough fluids, seek medical attention.
  • Ease back into eating. Gradually begin to eat bland, easy-to-digest foods, such as soda crackers, toast, gelatin, bananas, rice and chicken. Stop eating if your nausea returns. Avoid milk and dairy products, caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, and fatty or highly seasoned foods for a few days.
  • Consider acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) for relief of discomfort, unless you have liver disease.
  • Get plenty of rest. The illness and dehydration can make you weak and tired.

Get medical help if:

  • Vomiting persists for more than two days
  • Diarrhea persists for longer than several days
  • Diarrhea turns bloody
  • Fever is 101 F (38.3 C) or higher
  • Lightheadedness or fainting occurs with standing
  • Confusion develops
  • Worrisome abdominal pain develops

If you suspect gastroenteritis in your child:

  • Allow your child to rest.
  • When your child's vomiting stops, begin to offer small amounts of an oral rehydration solution, such as Pedialyte or Infalyte. Don't use only water. In children with gastroenteritis, water isn't absorbed well and won't adequately replace lost fluids. Also avoid apple juice and milk, which can make diarrhea worse.
  • Gradually introduce bland, easy-to-digest foods, such as toast, rice, bananas and potatoes. Avoid giving your child dairy products and sugary foods, such as ice cream, sodas and candy. These can make diarrhea worse.
  • Consider acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) for relief of discomfort, unless your child has liver disease. Don't give your child aspirin.
  • If you have a sick infant, let your baby's stomach rest for 30 to 60 minutes, then offer small amounts of liquid. If you're breast-feeding, let your baby nurse. If your baby is bottle-fed, offer a small amount of an oral rehydration formula (Pedialyte, Infalyte) or regular formula.

Get medical help if your child:

  • Becomes unusually drowsy.
  • Vomits blood.
  • Has bloody diarrhea.
  • Shows signs of dehydration, such as dry mouth and skin, marked thirst, sunken eyes, or crying without tears. In an infant, be alert to the soft spot on the top of the head becoming sunken and to diapers that remain dry for more than eight hours.
  • Is younger than age 2 and has a fever for longer than one day or is age 2 or older and has a fever for longer than three days.
Last Updated: 2010-01-09
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