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Classification & external resources
ICD-10 A09., J10.8, K52.
ICD-9 009.0, 009.1, 558
DiseasesDB 30726
eMedicine emerg/213 
MeSH D005759
Look up gastroenteritis in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.

In medicine, gastroenteritis (also known as gastro, gastric flu, and stomach flu although unrelated to influenza) refers to inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract, involving both the stomach and the small intestine (see also gastritis and enteritis). The inflammation is caused by infection with certain bacteria, viruses, parasites, or less commonly adverse reaction to something in the diet or medication. Worldwide, untreated acute diarrhea due to gastroenteritis kills 5 to 8 million people per year,[1] and is a leading cause of death among infants in Recife, the metropolis of the North-East of Brazil[2] and children under 5[citation needed].

At least 50% of cases of gastroenteritis as foodborne illness are due to norovirus.[3] Another 20% of cases, and the majority of severe cases in children, are due to rotavirus. The third significant viral agent is astrovirus.



Globally, gastroenteritis caused 4.6 million deaths in children in 1980 alone, most of these in the developing world,[4] Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine estimates the current total figure to be 2.4 to 2.9 million per year.[1] where the lack of adequate safe water and sewage treatment capacity contribute to the spread of infectious gastroenteritis. The global death rate has now come down significantly to approximately 1.5 million deaths annually, largely due to global introduction of proper oral rehydration therapy.[5]

The incidence in the developed countries is as high as 1-2.5 cases per child per year and a major cause of hospitalisation in this age group.

Age, living conditions, hygiene and cultural habits are important factors. Aetiological agents vary depending on the climate. Furthermore, most cases of gastroenteritis are seen during the winter in temperate climates and during summer in the tropics.[4]


Before the 20th century, the term "gastroenteritis" was not commonly used. What would now be diagnosed as gastroenteritis may have instead been diagnosed more specifically as typhoid fever or "cholera morbus", among others, or less specifically as "griping of the guts", "surfeit", "flux", "colic", "bowel complaint", or any one of a number of other archaic names for acute diarrhea.[6] Historians, genealogists, and other researchers should keep in mind that gastroenteritis was not considered a discrete diagnosis until fairly recently.

Symptoms and signs

It often involves stomach pain or spasms (sometimes to the point of being crippling), diarrhea and/or vomiting, with noninflammatory infection of the upper small bowel, or inflammatory infections of the colon.[7][4][1][8]

It usually is of acute onset, normally lasting fewer than 10 days and self-limiting.

The main contributing factors include poor feeding in infants. Diarrhea is common, and may be (but not always) followed by vomiting. Viral diarrhea usually causes frequent watery stools, whereas blood stained diarrhea may be indicative of bacterial colitis. In some cases, even when the stomach is empty, bile can be vomited up.

A child with gastroenteritis may be lethargic, suffer lack of sleep, or run a low fever and have signs of dehydration, which include dry mucous membranes, tachycardia, reduced skin turgor, skin color discoloration, sunken fontanelles and sunken eyeballs and darkened eye circles, poor perfusion and ultimately shock.

Symptoms may occur for up to 6 days. Given appropriate treatment, bowel movements will return to normal within a week after that.

Differential diagnosis


It is important to consider infectious gastroenteritis as a diagnosis per exclusionem. A few loose stools and vomiting may be the result of systemic infection such as pneumonia, septicemia, urinary tract infection and even meningitis. Surgical conditions such as appendicitis, intussusception and, rarely, even Hirschsprung's disease may mislead the clinician.

Non-infectious causes to consider are poisoning with heavy metals (i.e. arsenic, cadmium), seafood (i.e. ciguatera, scombroid, toxic encephalopathic shellfish poisoning) or mushrooms (i.e. Amanita phalloides). Secretory tumours (i.e. carcinoid, medullary tumour of the thyroid, vasoactive intestinal peptide-secreting adenomas) and endocrine disorders (i.e. thyrotoxicosis and Addison's disease) are disorders that can cause diarrhea. Also, pancreatic insufficiency, short bowel syndrome, Whipple's disease, coeliac disease, and laxative abuse should be excluded as possibilities.[8] Infectious gastroenteritis is caused by a wide variety of bacteria and viruses. For a list of bacteria causing gastroenteritis, see bacterial gastroenteritis. Viruses causing gastroenteritis include rotavirus, norovirus, adenovirus and astrovirus.

If gastroenteritis in a child is severe enough to require admission to a hospital, then it is important to distinguish between bacterial and viral infections. Bacteria, shigella and campylobacter, for example, and parasites like giardia can be treated with antibiotics, but viruses do not respond to antibiotics and infected children usually make a full recovery after a few days.[9] Children admitted to hospital with gastroenteritis routinely are tested for rotavirus A to gather surveillance data relevant to the epidemiological effects of rotavirus vaccination programs.[10][11] These children are routinely tested also for norovirus, which is extraordinarily infectious and requires special isolation procedures to avoid transmission to other patients. Other methods, electron microscopy and polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis, are used in research laboratories.[12][13]


The person's usual foods and drinks should not be withheld, but consumed as the person is able to tolerate them.[citation needed]


Regardless of cause, the principal treatment of gastroenteritis (and of all other diarrheal illnesses) in both children and adults is rehydration, i.e. replenishment of water lost in the stools. Depending on the degree of dehydration, this can be done by giving the person oral rehydration therapy (ORT) or through intravenous delivery. ORT can begin before dehydration occurs, and continue until the person's urine and stool output return to normal.


The World Health Organization recommends that infants and children receive a dietary supplement of zinc for up to 2 weeks after onset of gastroenteritis.[14]

Drug therapy


When the symptoms are severe one usually starts empirical antimicrobial therapy,[citation needed] i.e. a fluoroquinolone antibiotic.[7] Pseudomembranous colitis is treated by discontinuing the causative agent and starting with metronidazole or vancomycin.[7][4][1][8]

Antibiotics usually are not given for gastroenteritis. They may be given for gastroenteritis due to some bacteria.[15]

Antidiarrheal agents

Loperamide is an opioid analogue commonly used for symptomatic treatment of diarrhea. It slows down gut motility, but does not cross the mature blood-brain barrier[7] to cause the central nervous effect of other opioids. In too high doses, loperamide may cause constipation and significant slowing down of passage of feces, but an appropriate single dose will not slow down the duration of the disease.[16] Although antimotility agents have the risk of exacerbating the condition, this fear is not supported by clinical experience according to Sleisenger & Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease and the Oxford Textbook of Medicine.[7][8] Nevertheless, Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine discourages the use of antiperistaltic agents and opiates in febrile dysentery, since they may mask, or exacerbate the symptoms.[1] All these textbooks agree that in severe colitis antimotility drugs should not be used.

Loperamide prevents the body from flushing toxins from the gut, and should not be used when an active fever is present or there is a suspicion that the diarrhea is associated with organisms that can penetrate the intestinal walls, such as E. coli O157:H7 or salmonella.

Loperamide is also not recommended in children, especially in children younger than 2 years of age, as it may cause systemic toxicity due to an immature blood brain barrier, and oral rehydration therapy remains the main stay treatment for children.

Bismuth subsalicylate (BSS), an insoluble complex of trivalent bismuth and salicylate, is another drug that can be used in mild-moderate cases.[7][8]

Combining an antimicrobial drug and an antimotility drug, seems to be effective more rapidly.[7][8]

Antiemetic drugs

If vomiting is severe, antiemetic drugs may be helpful.


The most serious complication is dehydration, usually due to severe diarrhea but sometimes made worse due to improper treatment such as withholding fluids until diarrhea stops. Severe dehydration can be lethal and requires prompt medical care. The most common complication, especially in infants, is malabsorption of certain sugars in the diet, and consequent food intolerances. This complication may persist for weeks, during which time it causes mild diarrhea to return when the patient resumes their normal diet. Malabsorption of lactose, the principle sugar in milk, is the most common. Its consequent milk intolerance is caused by lactase deficiency, and the diarrhea is caused by bacterial fermentation of excess lactose in the gut.[17]. In children with viral gastroenteritis (usually rotavirus), the viral infection also can cause a high fever, which in turn can cause febrile convulsion. Gastroenteritis sometimes is followed by pneumonia.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e Kasper DL, Braunwald E, Fauci AS, Hauser SL, Longo DL, Jameson JL. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005. ISBN 0-07-139140-1.
  2. ^ PubMed
  3. ^ Norovirus: Technical Fact Sheet. National Center for Infectious Diseases, CDC.
  4. ^ a b c d Mandell's Principles and Practices of Infection Diseases 6th Edition (2004) by Gerald L. Mandell MD, MACP, John E. Bennett MD, Raphael Dolin MD, ISBN 0-443-06643-4 · Hardback · 4016 Pages Churchill Livingstone
  5. ^ Victora et al. 2000
  6. ^ Rudy's List of Archaic Medical Terms
  7. ^ a b c d e f g Sleisenger & Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease 7th edition, by Mark Feldman; Lawrence S. Friedman; and Marvin H. Sleisenger, ISBN 0-7216-8973-6, Hardback, Saunders, Published July 2002
  8. ^ a b c d e f The Oxford Textbook of Medicine[dead link – history][dead link – history] Edited by David A. Warrell, Timothy M. Cox and John D. Firth with Edward J. Benz, Fourth Edition (2003), Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-262922-0
  9. ^ Haffejee IE (1991). "The pathophysiology, clinical features and management of rotavirus diarrhoea". Q. J. Med. 79 (288): 289–99. PMID 1649479.
  10. ^ Patel MM, Tate JE, Selvarangan R, et al (2007). "Routine laboratory testing data for surveillance of rotavirus hospitalizations to evaluate the impact of vaccination". Pediatr. Infect. Dis. J. 26 (10): 914–9. doi:10.1097/INF.0b013e31812e52fd. PMID 17901797.
  11. ^ (2006) "The paediatric burden of rotavirus disease in Europe". Epidemiol. Infect. 134 (5): 908–16. doi:10.1017/S0950268806006091. PMID 16650331.
  12. ^ Beards GM (1988). "Laboratory diagnosis of viral gastroenteritis". Eur. J. Clin. Microbiol. Infect. Dis. 7 (1): 11–3. PMID 3132369.
  13. ^ Steel HM, Garnham S, Beards GM, Brown DW (1992). "Investigation of an outbreak of rotavirus infection in geriatric patients by serotyping and polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis (PAGE)". J. Med. Virol. 37 (2): 132–6. PMID 1321223.
  14. ^ Zinc Supplementation
  15. ^ Merck Manual
  16. ^ (Wingate et al, 2001)
  17. ^ Arya SC (1984). "Rotaviral infection and intestinal lactase level". J. Infect. Dis. 150 (5): 791. PMID 6436397.
  • Victora, C. G., Bryce, J., Fontaine, O., & Monasch, R. 2000, 'Reducing deaths from diarrhoea through oral rehydration therapy', Bulletin of The World Health Organization, vol. 78, no. 10, pp. 1246-1255.
  • Wingate D. et al. 2001. 'Guidelines for adults on self-medication for the treatment of acute diarrhea', Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics, vol. 15, no. 6, pp. 773-782.

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Gastroenteritis". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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