What causes gastroenteritis?
Advice for recovering from gastroenteritis
Gastroenteritis is an intestinal infection that causes vomiting, diarrhoea, abdominal cramps, and other symptoms. These symptoms usually aren't harmful but can be debilitating, so self-care is essential during recovery. Here we look at the best ways to recover from gastroenteritis.
What causes gastroenteritis?
Gastroenteritis, sometimes called stomach flu, is commonly caused by noroviruses and adenoviruses, but other viruses can also be responsible. Bacterial gastroenteritis is caused by common bacteria such as salmonella, E. coli, and campylobacter. It can also be caused by contaminated food and drinks1.
Symptoms of gastroenteritis
Symptoms can vary in severity, from a few days of mild tummy upset with vomiting and diarrhoea to severe sickness and diarrhoea for several days. It's mostly harmless, especially if you are otherwise in good health. However, there can be cause for concern if young children, the elderly, pregnant people, and those with compromised immune systems experience severe or persistent symptoms.
The most common symptoms are vomiting and diarrhoea, but abdominal cramps and fever may also occur. While it's very unpleasant, most people recover in a few days. With that said, it's essential to take care of yourself while recovering from gastroenteritis and prevent prolonging or worsening your symptoms.
How to recover from gastroenteritis
Stay at home and rest
Staying home and resting until you're better are important. Leaving your house risks your own health and that of anyone you come into close contact with, as gastroenteritis is contagious. The official advice is to stay away from people or work until you are 48 hours free of any bouts of vomiting or diarrhoea, to avoid passing it on to others2.
Vomiting and diarrhoea both cause dehydration, especially if you are unable to keep food and fluids down. Signs of dehydration include dizziness, headaches, and other symptoms that make everyday tasks strenuous and even exhausting.
Overexerting yourself can make you feel worse and slow the recovery period. It can also be unsafe for you to leave the house when suffering from severe dehydration, as it may affect factors such as your decision-making and balance.
Drink plenty of fluids
Repeated vomiting and diarrhoea make it difficult to give your body what it needs, fluids being one of them. Whether you are unable to keep fluids down or feel too unwell to drink at all, dehydration makes you feel worse and can cause additional symptoms. Symptoms of mild dehydration include dizziness and headaches, dry mouth and tongue, dark urine, and fatigue.
If you suspect you or someone you're caring for is severely dehydrated, you should seek medical advice.
People should drink two to three litres of water daily. If you have gastroenteritis, drink more water than usual or consider using oral rehydration solutions to prevent dehydration. A rough guide for increasing water intake is an extra glass of water following bouts of diarrhoea.
Vomiting makes it difficult to keep down fluids and stay hydrated. If you've been sick, wait around 5-10 minutes before drinking again, and start by drinking small amounts every few minutes. This will help your body get used to drinking without overdoing it and causing you to be sick again.
Ease back into eating
You should try to eat as normally as possible. This can be difficult as you may not have an appetite or are still vomiting. Adults can handle a day or two without food, but when you start eating again, you should ease yourself back with small, light, plain meals and foods that are easy to digest - such as bread, rice, pasta, and sugar-free cereals. Try to avoid dairy products if you have an upset tummy as they can be more difficult for your body to digest.
The key is to go with your appetite - if you're hungry, try to eat. Even small amounts of food will help your intestinal lining heal and provide the energy to regain your strength and recover. However, if you begin to feel nauseous or vomit, you should ease back on your food intake. Here's a guide for eating when you have gastroenteritis.
Note: even if you stop eating for a few days, you should never stop drinking. This causes dehydration because you won't replace the fluids lost through vomiting, diarrhoea, and sweating if you have a fever.
Avoid spreading infection at home
An important part of recovering from gastroenteritis is ensuring it doesn't spread to other people. Hygiene precautions help to prevent others getting sick and you experiencing repeat bouts of gastroenteritis.
Here are some good hygiene practices to keep in mind when you or someone else at home has gastroenteritis:
- Stay at home until you haven't vomited or had an episode of diarrhoea for at least 48 hours.
- Thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water after using the toilet. Dry your hands properly.
- Using disinfectant, clean the toilet and any surfaces that may have been touched, including larger surfaces as well as small surfaces, such as taps and door handles.
- Don't share towels.
- Don't make or serve food for other people.
If you take daily medications, it's crucial to monitor your intake, as bouts of sickness could mean you're not getting the right dosage. Generally, if you're sick more than 20 minutes after taking medication, it's unlikely you'll need to take more. But to be safe, contact your doctor for advice as all medications vary with regard to dosage and side-effects.
It's better to take paracetamol for pain relief, as ibuprofen can irritate your stomach.
When to call a doctor
Most cases of gastroenteritis clear up after a few days. Contact your doctor for advice if:
- You suspect that you are becoming severely dehydrated.
- You have extreme abdominal pain.
- There is blood in your vomit or stool (poo).
- You have a continuous high temperature (fever) lasting more than five days or not responding to paracetamol.
- You are elderly or have an underlying health condition such as epilepsy, diabetes, or kidney disease.
- You are pregnant.
- Your immune system is weakened by long-term medical treatments, such as chemotherapy.