DEAR DOCTOR K:
I was pretty sick recently, and my doctor said I had gastroenteritis. I’ve never had it before. How did I get it? And what can I do about it?
I’ll bet you’ve had gastroenteritis before, but your doctor didn’t use that term. Nearly everyone gets gastroenteritis at some time in their lives, often more than once. Gastroenteritis is an inflammation of the intestines. It causes diarrhea, abdominal cramps, nausea, loss of appetite and vomiting.
You most likely got gastroenteritis through a viral or bacterial infection. These are the two most common causes in adults.
Viral infections that cause gastroenteritis include the Norwalk virus, rotaviruses, adenoviruses and others. These viruses are very contagious; they can spread from one person to another on unwashed hands, or by sharing food or eating utensils with an infected person.
Salmonella, shigella, E. coli and many other bacteria can also cause gastroenteritis. They can spread through close contact with an infected person, or by drinking or eating infected food or water.
In otherwise healthy adults, gastroenteritis tends to be mild and brief. When it comes again, try the following until your symptoms subside:
- To prevent dehydration, drink plenty of fluids. Drink water, soft drinks, sports drinks, broth or oral rehydration fluids. If you are unable to drink a lot at once, take many smaller sips over a longer period.
- Once your nausea starts to subside, gradually resume a normal diet. Begin with clear soups, broth or sweetened gelatin desserts. Build up to rice, rice cereal and more substantial foods.
- Use over-the-counter anti-diarrhea medicines cautiously.
- Rest in bed.
In the elderly and people with weakened immune systems, gastroenteritis can produce dangerous complications. Even healthy adults may experience severe symptoms.
If you have severe symptoms, your doctor may prescribe medications to ease your nausea, vomiting and diarrhea; intravenous fluids for dehydration; and antibiotics to treat bacterial infection.
To help prevent gastroenteritis in the future:
- Wash your hands after using the toilet or changing diapers.
- Wash your hands before and after preparing food, especially raw meat.
- Don’t transfer cooked foods onto unwashed plates that held raw meat.
- Wash kitchen countertops and utensils thoroughly after they have been used to prepare meat.
- Never drink unpasteurized milk or untreated water.
- Drink only bottled water or soft drinks if you travel to an area where sanitation is poor.
The good news about gastroenteritis is that your immune system usually fixes it — admittedly after several uncomfortable days. The bad news is that, on occasion, it can produce enough diarrhea that a person can get severely dehydrated. That, in turn, can lead to fainting and to heart problems. To avoid that, you’ve got to pour as much fluid into your body as you are losing. If you don’t think you can keep up, contact your doctor: You may need a trip to the hospital for intravenous fluids.