What is Gastroenteritis?
Gastroenteritis is an infection of the gut which causes diarrhoea, vomiting and tummy pain. Diarrhoea and vomiting are common in adults, children and babies. They are often caused by a stomach bug and should stop in a few days. Severe gastroenteritis can cause dehydration particularly in young children.
- Watery, usually non bloody diarrhoea — bloody diarrhoea usually means you have a different, more severe infection. The usual duration of diarrhoea is 5–7 days and in most children it stops within 2 weeks.
- Abdominal cramps and pain.
- Nausea, vomiting or both. The usual duration of vomiting is 1 or 2 days and in most children it stops within 3 days.
- Occasional muscle aches or headache.
- Low-grade fever (temperature).
The advice is the same if you have diarrhoea and vomiting together or separately.
Looking after a child with gastroenteritis
You can look after your child at home if they have diarrhoea and vomiting. There's not usually any specific treatment and your child should start feeling better in a few days. You don't normally need to get medical advice unless their symptoms don't improve or there's a risk of a more serious problem.
To help ease your child's symptoms:
- Encourage them to drink plenty of fluids. They need to replace the fluids lost from vomiting and diarrhoea. Water is generally best. Avoid giving them fizzy drinks or fruit juice, as they can make their diarrhoea worse. Babies should continue to feed as usual, either with breast milk or other milk feeds. If they are vomiting, give fluids little and often. Offering small mouthfuls or use a syringe to see if this is better tolerated.
- Make sure they get plenty of rest.
- Let your child eat if they're eating solids and feel hungry. Try small amounts of plain foods, such as soup, rice, pasta and bread.
- Give them paracetamol if they have an uncomfortable fever or aches and pains.
- Use special rehydration drinks made from sachets bought from pharmacies if they're dehydrated. Your GP or pharmacist can advise on how much to give your child. Don't give them anti-diarrhoeal and anti-vomiting medication, unless advised to by your GP or pharmacist.
- Providing regular mouth care is important to maintain oral hygiene. Keep the lips moist by using a lip balm and clean teeth regularly.
Make sure you and your child wash your hands regularly while your child is ill and keep them away from school or nursery until at least 48 hours after their symptoms have cleared.
Preventing spread of infection:
- Washing hands thoroughly with soap (liquid if possible) in warm running water and careful drying is the best way to prevent the spread of gastroenteritis. Don't rely on alcohol hand gels, as they're not always effective.
- Hands should be washed after going to the toilet and changing nappies, and before preparing, serving, or eating food.
- Toilet seats, flush handles, wash-hand basin taps, surfaces, and toilet door handles should be cleaned at least once daily with hot water and detergent. A disinfectant and a disposable cloth (or one dedicated for toilet use) should be used to clean toilets. It's best to use a bleach-based household cleaner.
- Towels, flannels and cutlery used by infected children should not be shared.
- Soiled clothing and bed linen should be washed separately from other clothes and at the highest temperature they will tolerate (for example 60°C or higher for linen). Soaking in disinfectant is not necessary. The washing machine should not be more than half full to allow for adequate washing and rinsing.
- Children should not go back to school or other childcare facility until at least 48 hours after the last episode of diarrhoea or vomiting.
- Children should not swim in swimming pools for 2 weeks after the last episode of diarrhoea.
Getting medical advice for your child
You don't usually need to see your GP if you think your child has gastroenteritis, as it should get better on its own, and taking them to a GP surgery can put others at risk.
Phone the 111 service or your GP if you're concerned about your child, or they:
- Have symptoms of dehydration, such as passing less urine than normal, being unusually irritable or unresponsive, pale or mottled skin, or cold hands and feet.
- Have blood in their poo or green vomit.
- Are vomiting constantly and are unable to keep down any fluids or feeds.
- Have had diarrhoea for more than a week.
- Have been vomiting for three days or more.
- Have signs of a more serious illness, such as a high fever - temperature of 38°C or higher in children younger than 3 months temperature of 39°C or higher in children aged 3 months or older, shortness of breath, rapid breathing, a stiff neck, a rash that doesn't fade when you roll a glass over it or a bulging fontanelle (the soft spot on a baby's head).
- Have a serious underlying condition, such as inflammatory bowel disease or a weak immune system, and have diarrhoea and vomiting.