Gastroenteritis causes diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps and low-grade fever. Symptoms of gastroenteritis usually start one to two days after infection, and last from a few days to a week. The characteristics of the illness vary depending on the organism and the dose. General illness in most cases is mild-to-moderate, but can be life-threatening. Stools may range in character from semi-solid to resembling rice-water. Cramps, nausea, and vomiting, weakness and fatigue, and a low-grade fever (<101°F) may also be present.
People who eat the food prepared in large institutions and food-preparation facilities are at particular risk for spreading epidemics of gastroenteritis. Child-care centers and nursing homes, where personnel may care for others' bathroom needs and also handle food, are particularly susceptible to the spread of viral gastroenteritis. Places where food is prepared for large numbers of people, such as banquet halls, cruise ships, and college dorms, are also inherently risky environments for the spread of both viral and bacterial disease. An infected worker may handle food for large numbers of people, or large quantities of food may be improperly prepared or left at room temperature for too long.
Gastroenteritis is usually a mild disease, but tends to be more dangerous for certain groups. One of the biggest risks of gastroenteritis is dehydration. Infants, young children, and the elderly, who are less able to care for their own needs, are particularly at risk for dehydration.
In addition, some people are more likely to develop infections with more unusual strains, or become sicker from organisms that healthier people are able to fight off more easily. This includes young infants as well as those with weakened immune systems, such as AIDS patients. Individuals with disorders such as diabetes and scleroderma, which slow down the ability of their intestines to flush wastes through, are also more susceptible to disease-causing organisms taking hold in their intestines.
Some medications—including antacids, antibiotics, opiates, and anti-diarrhea drugs—create an environment conducive to the development of gastroenteritis. Long-term use of antacids and medications such as cimetidine (Tagamet) alter the acid environment of the stomach and colon, which normally provides a defense against many gastroenteritis-causing microorganisms. In addition, magnesium-containing antacids can actually cause diarrhea, mimicking gastroenteritis.
People who have recently finished a course of antibiotics are also more vulnerable to gastroenteritis.
Medications that slow the movement of the intestines, including opiates (such as codeine or morphine) and anti-diarrhea drugs, make individuals more susceptible to potentially dangerous organisms that normally quickly pass through the gastrointestinal system.
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