Acute gastroenteritis, also known as ‘stomach flu, is a disease caused by ingestion of food and water contaminated with microorganisms; it is typically characterized by profuse diarrhoea and vomiting. Although it can affect all individuals, it is common in children. Worldwide, it accounts for 2-5 billion cases and millions of deaths each year in children below the age of 5 years. Viral gastroenteritis can be dangerous for individuals with weak immune systems, such as infants, children, and older adults. Therefore, it is important to take adequate preventive measures to avoid contaminated food and water.
Symptoms of Acute Gastroenteritis
Acute gastroenteritis may typically present with the following symptoms:
- Severe abdominal pain and cramps
- Passage of frequent watery stools (diarrhoea)
- Nausea and vomiting
- Headache and low-grade fever due to infection
- Occasional muscle aches
- Dehydration as a result of constant diarrhoea and vomiting
- Dry skin, dry mouth, and light headedness, low urine output
It is important to watch out for signs of dehydration and immediately consult a doctor.
Causes of Gastroenteritis
Gastroenteritis is mainly caused due to microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses, or protozoa. The two main viruses causing gastroenteritis are:
- Rotavirus: It is the most prominent cause of viral gastroenteritis in children across the world. This type of infection is severe in infants and young children. Children are usually infected when they touch contaminated objects and put their fingers into the mouth. Adults may also be affected by this virus; however, they may not present with any symptoms but can still spread the disease.
- Norovirus: Also known as Winter Flu, it is the most common cause of food-borne illnesses across the world, affecting both adults and children. This virus most likely spreads through the contamination of food and water.
Food poisoning is an important cause of diarrhoea, the reason being the toxins of staphylococcus, E. coli, or Bacillus cereus in contaminated, expired, or re-heated food.
Other factors responsible for acute gastroenteritis include:
- Consumption of food contaminated with any of these pathogenic microorganisms.
- Sharing of food, utensils, or towels with an infected person.
- Not washing hands after using the toilet.
- Consumption of raw, undercooked food.
Treatment of Acute Gastroenteritis
Management of acute gastroenteritis focuses on prevention and treatment of dehydration, controlling diarrhoea and vomiting, with adequate nutrition and prevention of further complications.
- Mild-moderate dehydration is managed at home with oral rehydration solutions.
- Severe dehydration may require hospitalization and administration of intravenous fluids.
- Prebiotic and probiotic foods may be advised to improve gut health and prevent diarrhoea and vomiting.
- Oral zinc, bismuth compounds, or loperamide may be prescribed during the onset of symptoms to reduce the severity of diarrhoea.
- Antibiotics are only indicated in cases of bacterial gastroenteritis associated with septicaemia.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the most common cause of acute gastroenteritis?
The most common cause of acute gastroenteritis may be a viral or bacterial infection occurring due to consumption of food or water contaminated with the virus or bacteria. The two main viruses causing acute gastroenteritis are Rotavirus and Norovirus.
How is acute gastroenteritis treated?
Treatment of acute gastroenteritis mainly focuses on the management of dehydration through oral rehydration or intravenous fluids and dietary recommendations to improve gut health and reduce the severity of diarrhoea and vomiting.
What are the symptoms of acute gastroenteritis?
Acute gastroenteritis typically presents with symptoms of abdominal pain, frequent diarrhoea, vomiting, headache, low-grade fever, and dehydration.
Is acute gastroenteritis treatable?
Acute gastroenteritis is usually a self-limiting disease that resolves on its own in most cases in less than three days. However, treatment is generally directed towards the prevention and management of dehydration.
Dr Vishnu A Raju
MBBS, M.D (General Medicine), D.M (Gastro)
Department of Gastroenterology and Therapeutic Endoscopy