Are there any complications with gastroenteritis?
Complications are uncommon in the UK. They are more likely in the very young, in pregnant women, or in the elderly. They are also more likely if you have an ongoing (chronic) condition such as diabetes or if your immune system may not be working fully. For example, if you are taking long-term steroid medication or you are having chemotherapy treatment for cancer.
Possible complications include the following:
- Lack of fluid (dehydration) and salt (electrolyte) imbalance in your body. This is the most common complication. It occurs if the water and salts that are lost in your stools (faeces), or when you have been sick (vomited), are not replaced by you drinking adequate fluids. If you can manage to drink plenty of fluids then dehydration is unlikely to occur, or is only likely to be mild and will soon recover as you drink. Severe dehydration can lead to a drop in your blood pressure. This can cause reduced blood flow to your vital organs. If dehydration is not treated, kidney failure may also develop. Some people who become severely dehydrated need a drip of fluid directly into a vein. This requires admission to hospital.
- Reactive complications. Rarely, other parts of the body may react to an infection that occurs in the gut (intestines). This can cause symptoms such as joint inflammation (arthritis), skin inflammation and eye inflammation (either conjunctivitis or uveitis). Reactive complications are uncommon when a virus causes gastroenteritis.
- Spread of infection to other parts of your body such as your bones, joints, or the meninges that surround your brain and spinal cord. This is rare. If it does occur, it is more likely if gastroenteritis is caused by salmonella infection.
- Persistent diarrhoea syndromes may rarely develop.
- Irritable bowel syndrome is sometimes triggered by a bout of gastroenteritis.
- Lactose intolerance can sometimes occur for a while after gastroenteritis. This is known as secondary or acquired lactose intolerance. Your gut lining can be damaged by the episode of gastroenteritis. This leads to lack of a chemical (enzyme) called lactase that is needed to help your body digest a sugar called lactose that is in milk. Lactose intolerance leads to bloating, tummy (abdominal) pain, wind and watery stools after drinking milk. The condition gets better when the infection is over and the gut lining heals. It is more common in children.
- Haemolytic uraemic syndrome is another potential complication. It is rare and is usually associated with gastroenteritis caused by a certain type of E. coli infection. It is a serious condition where there is anaemia, a low platelet count in the blood and kidney failure. It is more common in children. If recognised and treated, most people recover well.
- Reduced effectiveness of some medicines. During an episode of gastroenteritis, certain medicines that you may be taking for other conditions or reasons may not be as effective. This is because the diarrhoea and/or vomiting means that reduced amounts of the medicines are taken up (absorbed) into your body. Examples of such medicines are medicines for epilepsy, diabetes and contraception. Speak to your doctor or practice nurse if you are unsure of what to do if you are taking other medicines and have gastroenteritis.
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- Freeman MC, Stocks ME, Cumming O, et al; Hygiene and health: systematic review of handwashing practices worldwide and update of health effects. Trop Med Int Health. 2014 Aug 19(8):906-16. doi: 10.1111/tmi.12339. Epub 2014 May 28.
- Acute diarrhoea in adults: racecadotril; NICE Evidence Summary New Medicine, March 2013
- Gastroenteritis; NICE CKS, July 2015 (UK access only)
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