Symptoms of gastroenteritis
Gastroenteritis can be very unpleasant. However, it usually clears up by itself within a week. You can normally look after yourself or your child at home until you're feeling better.
The main symptoms of gastroenteritis are:
- diarrhoea - loose or watery stools (poo) usually at least three times in 24 hours
- sudden vomiting
- blood or mucus may be present in your stools (poo)
- fever or feeling generally weak and unwell
Some people also have other symptoms, such as:
- a loss of appetite
- an upset stomach
- aching limbs
The symptoms usually appear within a day. But they may appear up to five days after becoming infected (depending on the organism (bug) responsible).
They typically last less than a week. But the symptoms can sometimes last a couple of weeks or longer (depending on the organism (bug) responsible).
What to do if you have gastroenteritis
If you experience sudden diarrhoea and vomiting, the best thing to do is stay at home until you're feeling better. While treating the symptoms can help, you have to let the illness run its course.
You don't usually need to get medical advice, unless your symptoms don't improve or there's a risk of a more serious problem (see when to get medical advice below).
To help ease your symptoms:
- drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration – you need to drink more than usual to replace the fluids lost from vomiting and diarrhoea. Water is best, but you could also try dilutable fruit flavoured drinks and soup
- take paracetamol for any fever or aches and pains
- get plenty of rest
- if you feel like eating, try small amounts of plain foods, such as soup, rice, pasta and bread
- use special rehydration drinks made from sachets bought from pharmacies if you have symptoms/signs of dehydration
- anti-vomiting medication and/or anti-diarrhoeal medication are not usually necessary, as the vomiting and diarrhoea will usually be self-limiting (come to an end without treatment)
- if your symptoms are particularly severe, and you think you might be at risk of dehydration, you should speak to your pharmacist as some medication is available without need for a prescription
Gastroenteritis can spread very easily. You should wash your hands regularly while you have symptoms. You should also stay off work or school until at least 48 hours after your symptoms have cleared. This will help to reduce the risk of passing it on (see preventing gastroenteritis below).
Looking after a child with gastroenteritis
You can look after your child at home if they have diarrhoea and vomiting. There's not usually any specific treatment. Your child should start feeling better in a few days.
You don't normally need to get medical advice unless their symptoms don't improve or there's a risk of a more serious problem.
To help ease your child's symptoms:
- Encourage them to drink plenty of fluids as they need to replace the fluids lost from vomiting and diarrhoea - water is generally best, but you could also try dilutable fruit flavoured drinks or soup (ensuring it is not too hot)
- Avoid giving them fizzy drinks or pure fruit juice, as they can make their diarrhoea worse - babies should continue to feed as usual, either with breast milk or other milk feeds
- Make sure they get plenty of rest
- Let your child eat if they're eating solids and feel hungry - try small amounts of plain foods, such as soup, rice, pasta and bread
- Give them paracetamol if they have an uncomfortable fever or aches and pains - young children may find liquid paracetamol easier to swallow than tablets
- Use special rehydration drinks made from sachets bought from pharmacies if they're dehydrated - your pharmacist or GP can advise on how much to give your child
- Don't give them anti-diarrhoeal and anti-vomiting medication, unless advised to by your GP or pharmacist
Make sure you and your child wash your hands regularly while your child has symptoms. You should keep them away from school or nursery until at least 48 hours after their symptoms have cleared (see preventing gastroenteritis below).
When to get medical advice
You don't normally need to see your GP if you think you have gastroenteritis, as it should get better on its own.
While the symptoms can be alarming for parents/carers, it is important to note that:
- diarrhoea usually lasts 5-7 days, and in most children it stops within 2 weeks
- vomiting, usually lasts 1 or 2 days, and in most children it stops within 3 days
- diarrhoea lasting for up to 10 days is not unusual
- vomiting usually lasts for 2 days
You should contact your GP if:
- your symptoms are severe – for example if you're unable to keep down any fluids because you are vomiting repeatedly (vomiting lasts more than two days for adults, 24 hours for children under age 2, or 12 hours for children 1 year or younger)
- your symptoms don't begin to improve after a few days - (children with diarrhoea who have defecated (pooed) more than five times in the previous 24 hours, adults with diarrhoea lasting more than 10 days)
- there is a temperature of 38°C or more in children younger than 3 months of age
- there is a temperature of 39°C or more in children 3 months of age or older/adults
- your baby or young child has suspected food poisoning - usually other people who have eaten the same food will experience similar symptoms
- there is any blood in the diarrhoea
- you have symptoms of severe dehydration
- you're pregnant
- you're over 60
- in the last few weeks you've returned from a part of the world with poor sanitation
- you have a long-term underlying condition, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), heart valve disease, diabetes or kidney disease
- you have a weak immune system – for example, because of medication, cancer treatment or HIV
In these situations, your GP may send off a stool (poo) sample for analysis. They may sometimes prescribe antibiotics, or they may refer you to hospital so you can be looked after more closely.
How gastroenteritis is spread
The bugs that cause gastroenteritis can spread very easily from person to person.
You can catch the infection if small particles of vomit or poo from an infected person get into your mouth, such as through:
- close contact with someone with gastroenteritis – they may breathe out small particles of vomit
- touching contaminated surfaces or objects
- eating contaminated food – this can happen if an infected person doesn't wash their hands before handling food, or you eat food that has been in contact with contaminated surfaces or objects, or hasn't been stored and cooked at the right temperatures (read more about the causes of food poisoning)
A person with gastroenteritis is most infectious from when their symptoms start until 48 hours after all their symptoms have passed. Although they may also be infectious for a short time before and after this.
It's not always possible to avoid getting gastroenteritis, but following the advice below can help stop it spreading:
- Stay off work, school or nursery until at least 48 hours after the symptoms have passed - you or your child should also avoid visiting anyone in hospital during this time
- For certain infections, you may need to be off work for longer, depending on the organism (bug) identified from a stool sample - your GP may seek the advice of public health doctors in such circumstances
- Make sure you and your child wash your hands often and thoroughly with soap and water, particularly after using the toilet and before preparing food - don't rely on alcohol hand gels, as they're not always effective
- Disinfect any surfaces or objects that could be contaminated - it's best to use a bleach-based household cleaner
- Wash contaminated items of clothing or bedding separately on a hot wash
- Don't share towels, flannels, cutlery or utensils while you or your child is ill
- Flush away any poo or vomit in the toilet or potty and clean the surrounding area
- Practice good food hygiene - make sure food is properly refrigerated, always cook your food thoroughly, and never eat food that is past its use-by date
Take extra care when travelling to parts of the world with poor sanitation, as you could pick up a stomach bug. For example, you may need to boil tap water before drinking it.
Young children can have the rotavirus vaccination when they’re two to three months old, which can reduce their risk of developing gastroenteritis.