Gastroenteritis is a viral infection characterised by an inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract or gut. It can be a contagious illness acquired from eating contaminated foods or water, having contact with an infected person, and even touching objects contaminated by rotaviruses, adenoviruses, noroviruses or other stomach viruses.
The improper handling procedures of food handlers, such as chefs, cooks and kitchen assistants, increase the risk of infection. Consuming undercooked meat or raw foods is another way that the norovirus infection gets into the body. There are more cases of gastroenteritis in children than there are in adults, although gastroenteritis in adults is prevalent as well.
Symptoms of Gastroenteritis
Severe dehydration is a hallmark of norovirus or rotavirus infection, though not everyone may experience it. Symptoms of dehydration include dry mouth and skin, dizziness, feeling extremely thirsty due to loss of fluid in the body, and dry diapers in infants due to less urine output or sweating. These are some of the typical symptoms of gastroenteritis. Other signs include the following:
- Abdominal cramps
- Loss of appetite
- Bloody stools
- Stomach pain
- Body aches
Causes of Gastroenteritis
There are more than 200 viruses that can cause viral gastroenteritis, the most common of which is the norovirus. This virus is so highly contagious that it can trigger the spread of infection in one or two days after exposure. It accounts for acute gastroenteritis, which is the onset of illness that may or may not be accompanied by vomiting, abdominal pain, nausea or fever. The gastroenteritis virus can also live on an infected person's hands, or on a contaminated surface, for several hours after leaving its host's body via stool or vomit.
Gastroenteritis spreads easily from person to person contact, as well as through contaminated food. Other causes of gastroenteritis include:
- Bacterial infection
- Food poisoning
- Environmental factors such as contaminated waters
- Toxic chemicals
For gastroenteritis to occur, there needs to be an exposure of the digestive tract to a virus, bacteria or parasite. This can happen through ingesting contaminated food or water, coming into direct contact with a sick person who is a carrier of gastroenteritis, or having close contact with objects that have been used by people infected with gastroenteritis. In very young children and infants, gastroenteritis can also result from the ingestion of faeces-contaminated food.
Who is at Risk of Gastroenteritis?
People who are at risk of contracting gastroenteritis include young children, the elderly, and those who have weakened immune systems. It is important for these individuals to take extra precautions to avoid exposure to the virus, such as washing their hands regularly and avoiding contact with sick people.
Hospitals are probably the most dangerous places to be colonized by gastroenteritis. The close quarters and frequent contact with other people means that the virus can easily spread from person to person. Healthcare workers are particularly at risk of contracting gastroenteritis, as are patients and their families. Other places where gastroenteritis is highly transmissible include schools, daycare centres, cruise ships, nursing homes and long-term care facilities.
People who work in food service are also susceptible. The nature of their work means that they come into contact with a variety of contaminants, including raw meat and poultry, as well as uncooked fruits and vegetables. In fact, any place where there is a high risk for contamination can lead to an outbreak of gastroenteritis. That's why it's important to practise good personal hygiene. Regardless of the nature of your work, always wash your hands with soap and water, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, and thoroughly cook food to prevent foodborne illness.
Treatment for Gastroenteritis
There is no specific cure for gastroenteritis, and it is usually treated through rest, eating bland foods, and increasing fluids and rehydration therapy. It is important that those who have gastroenteritis do not consume any food or drink for at least two hours after the last episode of diarrhoea or vomiting to allow the stomach time to recover.
If you are experiencing severe symptoms, you may need to receive intravenous fluids in a hospital setting. In some cases, antibiotics may be prescribed if the cause of gastroenteritis is a bacterial infection.
The good news is that gastroenteritis is not inevitable. There are many ways to reduce your risk of contracting it, including:
- Washing your hands regularly and thoroughly
- Avoiding contact with sick people
- Avoiding exposure to contaminated food or water
- Practising good hygiene
- Eating a healthy diet to boost your immune system
Gastroenteritis is a relatively common illness that can cause a great deal of discomfort. However, most cases are treatable. There are several steps you can take to reduce your risk of contracting gastroenteritis, and a natural health professional can walk you through them. If you think you may have contracted gastroenteritis, it is important to replenish the lost fluids in your body by drinking water, or rehydration drinks like electrolyte-infused drinks, more often. If your symptoms persist or worsen, contact a healthcare professional immediately.