By Michael Hughes
Gastroenteritis, which can also be known as ‘gastro’, ‘gastro flu’, ‘food poisoning’, is a common illness that covers a range of viral and bacterial infections of the gastrointestinal tract – or the tummy. While forms of gastro itself are not fatal, anyone who has suffered from gastro will attest to just how miserable it can be and if it is the viral kind, which is contagious, it can quickly infect an entire household and leave the whole family fighting over the toilet bowl.
1 – SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS
Gastro signs can show up as early as one hour after infection, depending on the type. While adults will usually understand the flu-like signs and symptoms, it’s very important to monitor children in order to stay on top of the illness and avoid a protracted period of sickness. A bout of gastro can usually be recognised with some of the following symptoms:
- Generally feeling tired and unwell with body cramps and aches.
- Stomach pain and or stomach cramps.
- Vomiting and nausea
People might suffer from many, or only one of the above symptoms which can make it hard to determine if a bout of gastro is oncoming or if it is only generalised aches and pains. Once vomiting or diarrhoea starts, one can be reasonable certain they have a form of gastro and treatment should start as soon as possible.
Unfortunately, some of the more undesirable symptoms, namely vomiting and diarrhoea can last for up to 3 days and if you are incredibly unlucky, up to weeks.
2 – HOW TO TREAT
The absolutely most important treatment for any form of gastro in adults, children and infants alike is to replenish fluids and avoid dehydration. Both diarrhoea and vomiting greatly dehydrate the human body and even though you might not feel like continually drinking while lying miserable in bed, failure to do so can lead do dangerous consequences.
Dehydration is serious business and if you cannot keep your fluids down, or if you see any signs of blood in your vomit or diarrhoea, you should seek immediate medical care. While plain old H20 is an obvious way to rehydrate, there are some high electrolyte drinks found at chemists which can be an excellent alternative to plain old water as they replace water and ‘salt’ or electrolytes (which are a combination of nutrients such as sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphate and others). Some people recommend sports drinks to help with hydration, but many of these drinks contain high levels of sugar which actually draws water into the digestive system, causing more diarrhoea. Same thing goes for those other old wives tales remedies like flat lemonade or any other soft drinks.
There has been talk that fasting can reduce the amount of time it takes for the illness to leave the body, but no conclusive research validates this chat, so it is advised that you try to eat small, light meals—the blander the better. The frequency of these meals should be guided by your own personal levels of hunger.
NOTE: If it is a baby effected by any form of gastro, a visit to your GP should be your first priority. They will inform you of the best practice to keep your child hydrated and will inform you of when, if needed, you should seek further medical attention.
Get plenty of rest. You’re going to be spending a lot of time on or over the toilet bowl and your body needs as much down time as possible to help fight the nasties inside your gut.
This is an obvious one, but while you are suffering from gastro you should consider yourself extremely contagious and avoid work until around 24 hours after all your symptoms have disappeared. The virus can be spread multiple ways: in the bathroom and toilet are the most obvious, but even a sneeze or cough is enough to spread the virus through a workplace or any anywhere you come into contact with other people.
If you have no choice but to be around someone else while you are infected, or perhaps you are caring for someone who is infected, you should take every precaution possible to help reduce the chance of infection. The bathroom and toilet after vomiting or diarrhoea should be cleaned as well as possible. Wash your hands regularly and attempt to keep all the surfaces clean and fresh. While you might not be quite up to it, disinfecting the surfaces and floors of your bathroom and toilet with a bleach-based product will help reduce the chance of the gastro spreading.
Please note: you should absolutely NOT use any form of anti-diarrhoea medications unless otherwise directed by a doctor as they can actually worsen bacteria-induced diarrhoea.
Paracetamol is safe to be used in moderation to treat headaches and general achiness while you’re waiting for symptoms to pass.
3 – VIRAL OR BACTERIAL
Gastro can be caused by either viral or bacterial infections. Viral infections that cause gastro can spread extremely quickly through homes, works, schools and the broader community.
Viral outbreaks of gastro spread incredibly quickly from person to person and can often flourish in places like aged-care facilities, sporting events, concerts and it goes without saying the home is the greatest risk. Viral gastro doesn’t just spread from person to person, the following are common ways for viral gastro to spread:
- Eating food of drink that is contaminated with the virus either during the growing and processing stage, or if the food gets contaminated by the person preparing it.
- Surfaces and objects can carry the virus and be transmitted by healthy people toughing them and then touching their mouth or lips.
- Airborne particles, especially from when someone is sick with the virus and vomits.
There are two main viral pathogens that can cause an outbreak of gastro which are the Norovirus and the Rotavirus.
The rotavirus is a common cause of gastro outbreaks in infants and young children and often spreads rapidly through day care facilities, family homes and other communities. It has an incubation period of roughly 48 hours and can last for up to a week. It is crucial you keep your infant or child away from child care or school and inform the people in charge as soon as possible.
The norovirus is highly contagious and the greatest cause of gastro worldwide. It has an incubation period of 18-48 hours and usually lasts 1-2 days.
There are many bacterial infections that can cause gastro, but the two main culprits are: E.coli and Salmonella. Bacterial infections are caught eating contaminated food or drink so are usually isolated to a single person at a time (unless you both shared the seafood platter).
E.coli is often transmitted from eating raw vegetables and undercooked meats (especially meats like mince/ground beef) The incubation period can be as little as 12 hours and up to 3 days and the infection can last for up to a week.
Salmonella poisoning is also transmitted through contaminated food and water and has an incubation period between 24-49 hours and can last from days to even weeks (and some case have lasted months until all traces have left the body) all depending on the amount ingested.
4 – WHEN TO SEE A DOCTOR
Having gastro is a miserable experience for the individual and is more often than not, spread to the rest of the family. The good news is, most children and adults don’t require a trip to the doctor. Rest and plenty of fluids will usually see you through to the other side. There are times however, when you should contact a doctor. They are:
- If you notice blood in your vomit or diarrhoea.
- If you are unable to stop vomiting and cannot keep down any liquids.
- If you have severe stomach pain.
- If your symptoms are not getting better after 1-2 days.
- If you are elderly, have an underlying health condition such as kidney disease or diabetes or if you have a weakened immune system.
- If you are pregnant.
With all this said, like all illness, if you have any concerns, you should contact your GP immediately and make an appointment. Newborns and infants should also always be referred to a GP as soon as you become suspicious they might have contracted gastro. Babies can become dehydrated extremely easily and your doctor will be able to assist you with a plan or recommend further help.
Once you or someone in your family has contracted gastro you should try your upmost to prevent its spread through good hygiene practices and mindful cleaning of your home. Don’t go into work and spread it around, likewise, keep your kids home from school until they have completely recovered. If you are caring for someone who has gastro, take as many precautions as possible—wash your hands regularly, clean as much as possible.