There are two primary types of gastroenteritis: bacterial and viral. The viral form is also known as stomach flu and is the most common. It can persist up to a week and can be accompanied by a fever, weakness and muscle aches. Some forms of bacterial gastroenteritis can be as brief as 24 hours while the body clears the infectious out through diarrhoea and vomiting. Gastroenteritis caused by intestinal parasites can last much longer.
Viral gastroenteritis is spread by faecal contamination of either water or food. A variety of viruses, typically rotavirus and the Norwalk virus, can cause intestinal flu. Rotavirus is very common and can be very widespread in group settings such as daycare centers. The Norwalk virus is found in salads and raw shellfish. It is also common in swimming pools and lakes.
Bacterial gastroenteritis is most commonly caused by water or food which is contaminated by E.coli or salmonella. Bacteria such as staphylococcus is also known to produce toxins in foods that are improperly cooled after cooking, such as custards and similar items in self-serve salad bars. These toxins are capable of producing a form of gastroenteritis known as food poisoning.
In order to prevent a case of viral gastroenteritis, wash hands frequently, especially after using the toil or changing nappies. Children's toys should be disinfected frequently. Avoid eating raw shellfish and prepare food hygienically by disinfecting surfaces which are used to prepare fish and meats. Wash salad greens and vegetables thoroughly.
When in areas where public hygiene is lax, avoid raw foods and those foods prepared by street vendors. Drink purified water. Campers and hikers should carry with them purification tablets to clear parasites from drinking water. Probiotic supplements can also help to prevent acute viral gastroenteritis as well as some bacterial infections.
While there is no specific test for most types of viral gastroenteritis, in some cases a doctor may recommend a stool test for rotavirus.
Who is at Risk?
Those people who are particularly at risk are:
- Those travelling in areas of the world with poor public hygiene
- People who have had exposure to intestinal flu
- Those eating foods prepared in unsanitary conditions
- Individuals who eat raw shellfish
- People who are camping or hiking
Although this condition normally resolves itself over time without treatment, calming the digestive system and rehydrating the body are essential.
When the symptoms are acute, avoid eating. If the patient is vomiting, clear liquids can be taken or ice chips can be sucked. Gradually reintroduce bland foods such as rice and bananas until the symptoms subside. Caffeine, dairy products and alcohol should be avoided while suffering from a bout of gastroenteritis or to avoid further suffering with this condition.
Hydrating while ill is especially important for infants, children, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems. It can be critical to replace fluids lost to vomiting and diarrhoea. Watch for the symptoms of dehydration. Children should be given oral electrolyte solutions. In severe cases of dehydration, intravenous fluids and hospitalization may be required. When untreated, dehydration can be life threatening.
Probiotics may help relieve the symptoms of acute viral gastroenteritis and some types of bacterial gastroenteritis.
Plantain is a demulcent herb used for colitis. It acts similarly to marshmallow in that it soothes and heals the intestinal mucosa that become inflamed during a bout of gastroenteritis. This class of herbs is known as wound healers and is thought to have the ability to heal cuts on the skin. However, some plants such as plantain are also thought to heal internal "wounds" too. A tincture which is made of the roots and leaves of plantain can be consumed twice a day to help with gastroenteritis.
Several teas can soothe conditions such as gastroenteritis. The best are probably peppermint and chamomile teas.
Some other herbs and natural treatments include:
Always seek the advice of a physician or other healthcare provider if the patient seems to become severely dehydrated or his or her condition continues to worsen with no improvements.
- Bratman, S. The Alternative Medicine Ratings Guide: an expert panel rates the best treatments for over 80 conditions, Prima Health A Division of Prima Publishing (1998)
- Brown, L. Alternative Medicine, NTC/Contemporary Publishing (1999)
- Deepak Chopra, M.D. Alternative Medicine: The Definitive Guide, Celestial Arts (2002)
- Servan-Schreiber, D. The Encyclopedia of New Medicine: Conventional & Alternative Medicine For All Ages, Rodale International Limited (2006)
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