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Pediatrics - Gastroenteritis 

Introduction
Gastroenteritis is irritation and inflammation of the stomach and intestines.  It is most frequently caused by viral or bacterial infection.  Symptoms of gastroenteritis include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain.  Usually, treatment is aimed at preventing dehydration.  Certain bacterial causes are treated with antibiotics.  Gastroenteritis typically lasts from a few days to a week or more, depending on the cause.

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Anatomy
Whenever your child eats and drinks, food travels through his or her digestive system for processing.  Your child’s body absorbs nutrients and removes waste products via his or her digestive system.  When your child eats, his or her tongue moves chewed food to the back of the throat.  When your child swallows, the food moves into the opening of the esophagus.  The esophagus is a tube that moves food from the throat to the stomach.
 
Your child’s stomach produces acids to break down food for digestion.  Your child’s stomach processes the food into a liquid form.  The processed liquid travels from the stomach to the small intestine.  The liquid solidifies as it moves through the large intestine, forming a stool.  The stool is eliminated from your child’s body when he or she has a bowel movement.

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Causes
There are several causes of gastroenteritis. It is most frequently caused by viral or bacterial infection.  Viruses are found in contaminated food and water.  Poor hand washing most commonly transmits viruses.  Bacterial causes include traveler’s diarrhea, food poisoning, handling undercooked meat or poultry, and handling reptiles with the bacteria. 
 
Parasites, chemical toxins, and food intolerance can cause gastroenteritis.  Parasites are found in contaminated drinking water or swimming pools.  Chemical toxins are most frequently contained in seafood, certain medications, and metals including lead, mercury, and arsenic.  Food allergies or lactose intolerance, the inability to digest milk or cheese products, can also cause gastroenteritis.

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Symptoms
Common symptoms of gastroenteritis include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, a low fever, and cramping or abdominal pain.  You should call your doctor if your child feels weak, dizzy, or experiences serious symptoms.  More serious symptoms include a swollen or painful abdomen; fever higher than 101°, vomiting that lasts for more than 48 hours, bloody bowel movements, and dehydration.  Extreme thirst, dry mouth, little urine production, and a lack of tears are signs of dehydration.  You should take your child to a hospital emergency room if your child is unusually sleepy or unaware of his or her surroundings.

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Diagnosis
Your doctor can start to diagnose gastroenteritis by reviewing your child’s medical history and conducting a physical examination.  You should tell your doctor about your child’s symptoms and any possible exposures to contaminants or toxins.  Your doctor may test your child’s blood and stool to help determine the cause of your child’s illness.  Your doctor will also evaluate how dehydrated your child is.

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Treatment
The main goal of treatment for gastroenteritis is to rehydrate.  Fluids, salts, and minerals need to be replaced.  Your doctor may recommend hydration drinks for your infant or child.  People with severe dehydration may need fluid replacement via an IV line. 

Certain bacteria are treated with antibiotics.  Antibiotics are not a treatment for viruses.  Medications may be recommended to reduce vomiting.  Gastroenteritis typically lasts from a few days to a week or more, depending on the cause.  Your doctor will instruct you on how to gradually increase your child’s diet to solid foods after his or her illness has stopped.

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Prevention
Your child can prevent the transmission gastroenteritis with good hand washing.  Hands should be washed thoroughly after going to the bathroom and before handling food.  Your child should avoid contaminated food or water.  Enzyme supplements are available to help digest foods with lactose.  Additionally, there are many lactose-free products available on the market. 

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Am I at Risk

Is My Child at Risk?

Infants, children, the elderly, and people with suppressed immune systems have the highest risk for getting severe symptoms from gastroenteritis.  Your child’s risk is increased if your child travels or lives in areas with poor sanitation.  Your child is at risk if your child eats or drinks contaminated food or water.

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Complications
You should call your doctor if your child feels weak, dizzy, or experiences serious symptoms.  More serious symptoms include a swollen or painful abdomen, fever higher than 101°, vomiting that lasts for more than 48 hours, bloody bowel movements, and dehydration.  Extreme thirst, dry mouth, little urine production, and a lack of tears are signs of dehydration.  You should take your child to a hospital emergency room if your child is unusually sleepy or unaware of his or her surroundings.

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This information is intended for educational and informational purposes only. It should not be used in place of an individual consultation or examination or replace the advice of your health care professional and should not be relied upon to determine diagnosis or course of treatment.

The iHealthSpot patient education library was written collaboratively by the iHealthSpot editorial team which includes Senior Medical Authors Dr. Mary Car-Blanchard, OTD/OTR/L and Valerie K. Clark, and the following editorial advisors: Steve Meadows, MD, Ernie F. Soto, DDS, Ronald J. Glatzer, MD, Jonathan Rosenberg, MD, Christopher M. Nolte, MD, David Applebaum, MD, Jonathan M. Tarrash, MD, and Paula Soto, RN/BSN. This content complies with the HONcode standard for trustworthy health information. The library commenced development on September 1, 2005 with the latest update/addition on April 13th, 2016. For information on iHealthSpot’s other services including medical website design, visit www.iHealthSpot.com.