Gastroenteritis normally causes only mild to moderate disease, but can require urgent medical attention, especially if dehydration develops. Seek medical attention at once if diarrhea, vomiting, or abdominal pain is severe, or if a high fever develops. Diarrhea, vomiting, and severe abdominal symptoms make dehydration more likely to occur, or indicate that something other than simple gastroenteritis is present. Gastroenteritis can lead to dangerous loss of fluid, and with severe vomiting or diarrhea, a life-threatening situation can develop within a few hours. Someone with mild dehydration often feels thirsty and restless. If fluid loss continues, the person may become lethargic and develop a rapid pulse (more than 120 beats per minute) and a fast breathing rate. Mild dehydration can be treated at home with plenty of fluids, but if symptoms are worsening, go to an emergency room at once, where IV fluids can be administered. If you are feeling dizzy and weak but you are unable to hold down liquids, go to an emergency room to have your dehydration treated.
Contact your doctor if:
- there is blood or pus in the stool
- moderate symptoms last for more than a few days
- mild symptoms persist for longer than a week
- you are vomiting and must take oral medications regularly
- you (or a person in your care with gastroenteritis) are at high risk for severe disease (e.g. an infant or young child, an elderly person, or someone with AIDS)
Take steps to prevent dehydration. Dehydration is the most common serious problem that can arise from gastroenteritis. It's essential to replace the fluids that may be lost from diarrhea and/or vomiting. Even if you feel nauseous or have been vomiting, take frequent small sips of liquids. Water, soft drinks, sports drinks, clear broth, and diluted fruit juices also work well. Families with infants and young children should keep on hand a supply of oral rehydration solution (for example, over-the-counter Pedialyte) to use at the first sign of illness.
During recovery, eat bland foods for a few days, and then gradually resume a normal diet. Most people naturally feel like eating only easily digestible foods after a bout of gastroenteritis. Health care providers often suggest a BRAT diet, consisting of bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast, but whatever bland foods you want can probably be tolerated just as well. Many people do well with sweetened gelatin desserts, clear soups, crackers, boiled potatoes, cooked carrots, noodles, oats, and boiled chicken. High-fiber and high-fat foods should wait, and some recommend avoiding milk and whole-wheat products until feeling better.
If your baby has gastroenteritis, keep his or her bottom especially clean during bouts of diarrhea to prevent a rash. Digestive enzymes and acid in the diarrhea can quickly cause a rash. Wash your baby's bottom well with warm water and mild soap after each episode of diarrhea. Avoid commercial diaper wipes, which usually contain alcohol and are painful on irritated skin. Instead, use a soft washcloth or tissues. When the skin is dry, apply a protective layer of diaper cream or petroleum jelly.
Your doctor is the best source of information on the drug treatment choices available to you.
Intravenous fluids, given in a hospital or emergency room, may be needed for dehydration.
Most people with gastroenteritis completely recover within a week. If you have gastroenteritis, you can expect a few days of gastrointestinal upset, and will then feel weak and tired for a few more days as you gradually resume a normal diet and activity. Some people experience temporary milk intolerance (bloating or stomach pain after ingesting milk products). Most people recover well without medications or a visit to the doctor. However, cases are more likely to be severe in infants, young children, the elderly, or AIDS patients, who may need antibiotics or special care to prevent or treat dehydration.
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