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Gastroenteritis
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Gastroenteritis

Diseases & Conditions A-Z

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INFECTIOUS DISEASE

Viral Illnesses

Gastroenteritis is a nonspecific term for a variety of pathologic states of the gastrointestinal tract. The primary manifestation is diarrhea, but it may be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. A universal definition of diarrhea does not exist, although patients seem to have no difficulty defining their own situation. Although most definitions center around the frequency, consistency, and water content of stools, the author prefers the definition that diarrhea stools take the shape of their container.

When to seek medical advice

If you're an adult, call your doctor if you're not able to keep liquids down for 24 hours, if you're vomiting for more than two or three days, or if you vomit blood or become dehydrated. Signs of dehydration include excessive thirst, dry mouth, deep yellow urine or little or no urine, and severe weakness, dizziness or lightheadedness. In addition, seek medical care if you notice blood in your bowel movements or have a fever above 100 F.

See your doctor right away if your child has a temperature of 102 F or higher, seems lethargic or very irritable, is in a lot of discomfort or pain, has bloody diarrhea, or seems dehydrated. Watch for signs of dehydration in sick infants and children by comparing how much they drink and urinate with how much is normal for them.

If you have an infant, remember that while spitting up may be an everyday occurrence for your baby, vomiting is not. Babies vomit for a variety of reasons, many of which may require medical attention. Call your baby's doctor right away if vomiting lasts more than three hours or if your baby has any of the following signs and symptoms:

  • Hasn't had a wet diaper in three hours

  • Has bloody stools or severe diarrhea

  • Has a dry mouth or cries without tears

  • Is unusually sleepy, drowsy or unresponsive

Screening and diagnosis

Your doctor will likely diagnose gastroenteritis based on symptoms, a physical exam and sometimes on the presence of similar cases in your community. A rapid stool test can detect rotavirus, but there are no quick tests for other viruses that cause gastroenteritis. In some cases your doctor may have you submit a stool sample to rule out a possible bacterial or parasitic infection.

Complications

Dehydration — a severe loss of water and essential salts and minerals — is the most common serious complication of gastroenteritis. If you're a healthy adult and drink enough to replace fluids you lose from vomiting and diarrhea, dehydration shouldn't be a problem. But infants, older adults and people with suppressed immune systems may become severely dehydrated when they lose more fluids than they can replace. In that case, they may need to be hospitalized and receive intravenous fluids. In extreme cases dehydration can be fatal.

Gastroenteritis > 1 > 2 > 3 > 4

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