What is gastroenteritis?
Besides causing discomfort, abdominal pain can cause you to worry. A high white blood cell count may also be troubling. If you are having these symptoms, you may wonder if simple gastroenteritis can cause this combination of symptoms or if you are experiencing something more serious.
Gastroenteritis, commonly called stomach flu, is an inflammation of the digestive tract, specifically of the lining of your stomach and small intestine. It comes in three varieties: viral, bacterial, and parasitic.
Most cases of gastroenteritis pass on their own without a need for medical treatment, although older people, young people, and those with certain health conditions may need to seek help.
Blood tests aren’t particularly helpful in diagnosing gastroenteritis because a high white blood cell count occurs with almost any type of infection or inflammation. Doctors seldom order blood tests for gastroenteritis, but they may if they suspect something else is causing your symptoms.
Symptoms of gastroenteritis
The three types of gastroenteritis are slightly different, but they all have the same usual symptoms:
Cramping and diarrhea
Diarrhea is the primary symptom of gastroenteritis. You may have several watery stools a day, along with abdominal pain and cramping. If you have more than 10 bowel movements in a single day, you are experiencing what doctors consider severe diarrhea.
Other digestive symptoms
Causes of gastroenteritis
Many conditions can cause gastroenteritis, but these are the most common:
Rotavirus was very common in children under three until 2006, when scientists developed a vaccine. Since then, the number of cases has plummeted.
Norovirus frequently causes outbreaks of gastroenteritis in closed environments, such as cruise ships and nursing homes. It is resistant to common disinfectants.
Less commonly, other viral agents such as adenoviruses can cause gastroenteritis.
Bacterial gastroenteritis may be a form of food poisoning that begins when you eat contaminated food, food that has been undercooked, or food that has been left unrefrigerated. Some bacterial gastroenteritis infections also spread person-to-person. If you have gastroenteritis with bloody stool or a high fever, you probably have the bacterial version.
Intestinal parasites can also cause gastrointestinal distress. In the United States, the microorganisms Giardia or Cryptosporidium often cause parasitic gastroenteritis. Giardiasis results from contact with the feces of infected animals or humans.
Cryptosporidium is usually waterborne. It can grow in drinking water or water used for recreational purposes, such as the water in splash pads. Both Giardia and Cryptosporidium have an outer shell that allows them to survive outside the body of a host and that makes them hard to kill.
Diagnosis of gastroenteritis
Gastroenteritis usually passes quickly, but if your symptoms persist, you should see a doctor. It is important to accurately diagnose gastroenteritis because conditions such as ulcerative colitis or appendicitis can cause similar symptoms.
To diagnose you, your doctor may ask you the following questions:
- Have you been out of the country recently? If so, you may have traveler’s diarrhea.
- Have you recently been on an antibiotic? If so, you may have killed the good bacteria in your digestive tract, allowing bacteria such as C. difficile to grow.
- Have you eaten any foods that have recently been the subject of a recall?
- Have you been around people with similar symptoms?
- Have you changed medications recently?
Your doctor may also run diagnostic tests, including:
Your doctor can use a stool sample to classify your diarrhea as acute watery diarrhea, chronic watery diarrhea, or acute inflammatory diarrhea. This result, plus the answers to the questions above, will tell your doctor if further testing is needed.
Tests for serum electrolytes and creatinine can help doctors assess those who appear to be seriously ill. In some cases, your doctor may also do a complete blood count (CBC) because a high count of particular white blood cells, called eosinophils, may indicate a parasitic infection.
Treatments for gastroenteritis
The treatment of gastroenteritis depends upon the diagnosis, but your doctor may recommend the following:
If you are at home, you should drink fluids including broth or bouillon to stay hydrated. If your child has diarrhea, you should not give them sugary fluids like soda pop or fruit drinks because they have the wrong combination of water, sugar, and salts. Your doctor can tell you what fluids are best.
If you are in the hospital with severe diarrhea, your doctor may order intravenous (IV) fluids, as well as oral fluids if you can keep them down. The type of IV fluids may differ according to your symptoms and diagnosis.
Your doctor may recommend drugs that reduce diarrhea, such as loperamide. Your doctor will not recommend these drugs if they suspect that C. difficile, Salmonella, or Shigella are the cause of your illness.
Digestive Disorders Resources
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Cedars Sinai: "Bacterial Gastroenteritis."
Family Doctor: "Anti-diarrheal Medicines: OTC Relief for Diarrhea."
Harvard Health Publishing: "Gastroenteritis in Adults."
Merck Manual Professional Version: "Diarrhea."
Merck Manual Professional Version: "Gastroenteritis."
MUSC Health: "Gastroenteritis."
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Diagnosis of Appendicitis."
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Diagnosis of Viral Gastroenteritis ("Stomach Flu").