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Gastroenteritis (Vomiting and Diarrhoea)

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Diarrhoea and Vomiting (Gastroenteritis)





Description of Gastroenteritis


Gastroenteritis (for ‘gastro’) is a general term for an illness of the digestive system and in particular the stomach and small intestine. Typical symptoms include abdominal cramps, diarrhoea and vomiting. In many cases it does not need treatment, and symptoms disappear in a few days (National Health and Medical Research Council, 2012). Gastroenteritis can cause dehydration because of a large amount of fluid lost through vomiting and diarrhoea. A person suffering from sever gastroenteritis may need fluids intravenously (Eckardt and Baumgart, January 2011).


Infectious causes of gastroenteritis include:

  • Viruses such as rotavirus, adenoviruses and norovirus
  • Bacteria such as Campylobacter, Salmonella and Shigella
  • Bacterial toxins such as staphyloccocal toxins
  • Parasites such as Giardia and Cryptosporidium (Webber, 2009).

Non-infectious causes of gastroenteritis include:

  • Medication such as antibiotics
  • Chemical exposure such as zinc poisoning
  • Introducing solid foods to a young child
  • Anxiety or emotional stress (National Health and Medical Research Council, 2012).

The exact cause of infectious diarrhoea can only be diagnosed by laboratory tests of faecal specimens. In mild, uncomplicated cases of diarrhoea, doctors do not routinely conduct faecal testing (National Health and Medical Research Council, 2012).

Children with diarrhoea who also vomit or refuse extra fluids should see a doctor. In severe cases hospitalisation may be needed.

How Does Gastroenteritis Spread?


Gastroenteritis diseases spread when the germ enters the body via the mouth. This can happen when:


  • People eat contaminated food or drink contaminated water
  • Infected people don’t wash their hands effectively after using the toilet – contaminated hands can then contaminate food that may be eaten by others, or surfaces that other people may touch before touching their mouth (National Health and Medical Research Council, 2012).
  • A person changes the nappy of an infected infant and does not wash their hands effectively.



Incubation Period


Viral and bacterial gastroenteritis usually takes 1-3 days for symptoms to appear. Symptoms of parasitic gastroenteritis can take 5-15 days to appear (National Health and Medical Research Council, 2012).


Infectious Period


People are infectious for as long as the germ are present in their faeces. The germs causing gastroenteritis can be in faeces even if the person does not have any symptoms, or after the symptoms have stopped (National Health and Medical Research Council, 2012).



The main risk of gastroenteritis is dehydration, especially in children – a child with gastroenteritis may become very ill, and may need to go to hospital (Canavan and Arant, October 2009). People with diarrhoea need extra fluid to replace what they lose through vomiting and diarrhoea. However, many fluids have too much sugar and the wrong amount of salt – giving an ill child the wrong kind of fluid can cause more diarrhoea and dehydration (Canavan and Arant, October 2009).

Safe Drinks

The best fluid to give a child contains a mixture of special salts (electrolytes) and sugars. You can buy oral rehydration solution from your local chemist. Mix the sachet of powder in water (not any kind of fluid) according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

If oral rehydration solution is not available, or your child will not take it, you can dilute other fluids with plenty of water.

Don’t give your child undiluted fruit juice, fizzy drinks, low-calorie soft drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks or full strength cordial to children with diarrhoea – this can increase diarrhoea and dehydration (National Health and Medical Research Council, 2012).

Breastfed Children

Breastfeeding mothers should continue to breastfeed and offer the breast more often. Offer water (boiled if the infant is less than 6 months old) or oral rehydration solution between feeds (National Health and Medical Research Council, 2012).

Reintroducing Foods

Reintroduce foods within 24 hours of the onset of symptoms, even if diarrhoea has not settled. Suitable foods to start off with include bread, plain biscuits, potatoes, rice, noodles, vegetables, plain meat, fish and eggs. Gradually reintroduce other foods, such as dairy foods, and sweet foods, such as jelly, honey and jam (
King and Glass and Bresee and Duggan, November 2003).






Canavan, A. and Arant, B.S. (October 2009). Diagnosis and management of dehydration in children. American Fam Physician 80 (7): 692–6.


Eckardt, A.J. and Baumgart, D.C. January 2011. Viral gastroenteritis in adults. Recent Patents on Anti-infective Drug Discovery 6 (1): 54–63.


King, C.K. and Glass, R. and Bresee, J.S. and Duggan, C. (November 2003). Managing acute gastroenteritis among children: oral rehydration, maintenance, and nutritional therapy. MMWR Recomm Rep 52 (RR-16): 1–16.


National Health and Medical Research Council (2012). Staying Healthy: Preventing diseases in early childhood education and care services 5th Edn. NHMRC, Canberra.


Webber, R. (2009). Communicable disease epidemiology and control : a global perspective (3rd ed.). Wallingford, Oxfordshire: Cabi. p. 79.

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