Gastroenteritis - Your guide to gastro

Gastroenteritis is a common illness among children, particularly those aged under five years old. It is an infection of the gut that causes inflammation and irritation of the stomach and intestines, leading to symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhoea, abdominal pain, and fever. 

Causes of Gastroenteritis

Gastroenteritis is most commonly caused by a viral infection, such as rotavirus or norovirus. These viruses are highly contagious and can spread easily through contact with infected people or surfaces. Bacterial infections, such as salmonella, can also cause gastroenteritis. These are usually acquired through the consumption of contaminated food or water. Other causes of gastroenteritis include parasites, toxins, and certain medications.

Symptoms of Gastroenteritis

The symptoms of gastroenteritis usually appear within one to three days of exposure to the virus or bacteria. The most common symptoms include:

Diarrhoea: Loose, watery stools that occur frequently. 

Vomiting: Forceful expulsion of stomach contents. 

Abdominal pain: Cramping or discomfort in the stomach. 

Fever: Elevated body temperature, usually above 38°C. 

Dehydration: Loss of fluids and electrolytes due to diarrhoea and vomiting.

Children with gastroenteritis may also experience other symptoms, such as loss of appetite, irritability, and lethargy. In severe cases, they may develop complications such as electrolyte imbalances or sepsis.

Management of Gastroenteritis

The management of gastroenteritis in children is aimed at relieving symptoms, preventing complications, and promoting recovery. The Australian guidelines for the management of gastroenteritis in children recommend the following:

Rehydration

The most important aspect of management is the prevention and treatment of dehydration. Children with gastroenteritis should be encouraged to drink fluids, preferably oral rehydration solution (ORS), which contains a balanced mix of electrolytes and glucose. If you are bottle feeding your baby, give ORS instead for the first 12 hours, then give normal formula in small frequent amounts after. Infants should be given breastmilk or formula, and older children can also be given clear fluids such as water. In severe cases of dehydration, hospitalisation and intravenous fluids may be required. It is important to be keeping track of your child's input and output if you suspect dehydration. Using a tracker such as the Tiny Hearts dehydration tracker is a simple, easy way to monitor their hydration.  Here's a video that demonstrates how little ones with gastro can become dehydrated:


Keeping up Nutrition

Children with gastroenteritis may have a reduced appetite and may not want to eat. However, it is important to encourage them to eat small, frequent meals that are easy to digest, such as plain rice, toast, and bananas. Breastfeeding should be continued as usual, and formula-fed infants may need to be given smaller, more frequent feeds. Offer your baby a drink every time they vomit. 

Preventing the spread

Gastroenteritis is highly contagious, and it is important to prevent the spread of infection. This can be achieved through good hygiene practices, such as handwashing, disinfecting surfaces, and avoiding close contact with infected individuals. Children with gastroenteritis should also be excluded from childcare or school until they are well.

Do I need to give my child medication?

Over-the-counter medications that reduce vomiting or diarrhoea should not be given to children as they may be harmful.

When to Seek Medical Advice

In most cases, gastroenteritis in children is an illness that will self-resolve within a few days. However, parents should seek medical advice if their child has gastro and:

Is younger than six months old

Is unable to keep down fluids 

If the symptoms last more than 10 days 

Have more than 8-10 watery poos 

Has signs of dehydration, such as reduced urine output, dark urine, dry mouth, or sunken eyes. 

Has bad stomach pain 

Is lethargic or unresponsive. 

Has blood in their poo 

Has green vomit

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