In most cases, the best way to treat acute gastroenteritis is with plenty of fluids, bland, simple foods, and lots of rest. Acute cases typically go away all by themselves after a few days and don’t normally require medical intervention. Sometimes over-the-counter flu and nausea medication can help speed healing, or at least help you feel a bit better during the recovery process. Stronger drugs aren’t normally needed, but it’s usually a good idea to err on the side of safety and visit a doctor or other medical provider if your symptoms last for more than five days, or if you’re unable to keep any fluids down for more than 48 hours. These may be signs of a more serious condition that may require intravenous fluids or antibiotics to cure.
Understanding the Condition Generally
Acute gastroenteritis is an inflammation of the stomach and its lining. It’s frequently referred to in common parlance as the “stomach flu” or the “24 hour flu,” although it isn’t related to influenza which also carries the “flu” name. There are a couple of different causes, though the most common tend to be bacteria and viruses; food-borne illnesses can also be to blame, as can parasites, though this is much more rare.
You don’t usually need a formal diagnosis to guess that you’re suffering from this condition. It’s usually characterized by a moderately elevated temperature, nausea and vomiting, and diarrhea, and tends to be quite disruptive.
Importance of Fluids and Hydration
Keeping track of your fluid intake is one of the most important things to consider as you set out to treat acute gastroenteritis. Especially if vomiting is regular or particularly intense, you’ll want to be sure you aren’t losing too much fluid, since this can lead to potentially dangerous dehydration. Try to drink small amounts of clear fluids, such as water, electrolyte-enhanced sports beverages, or oral re-hydration solutions. Start with up to 120 milliliters every hour, and increase fluids gradually as tolerated. Most experts recommend avoiding juices because of their high sugar content; sugars can increase irritation and make diarrhea worse.
If fluids cannot be kept down and vomiting continues, watch for signs of dehydration. In children and infants, signs include irritability, sunken eyes, and a decrease in wet diapers or urination. The soft spot on the baby’s head may also become depressed. In adults and older children, signs of dehydration may include dizziness, no urine output, or very dark urine. Dehydration may need specialized intervention, including intravenous fluid drips.
Simple, Bland Foods
Once fluids are kept down for a few hours, small amounts of bland foods can be started. Care providers sometimes advise patients to follow the so-called “BRAT diet,” where the “BRAT” acronym stands for bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast. Bland foods are usually easier to digest and better tolerated by a healing stomach than those with more complex flavors or compositions.
It’s usually permissible to start additional foods after symptoms have gone away. However, the stomach may still be irritated and easily upset a few days after vomiting and diarrhea have ceased. In general, it’s a good idea to avoid eating foods that are greasy or fried and may cause an upset stomach. Alcoholic drinks should also be avoided, and most dairy products should similarly be avoided for the first few days.
Many pharmacies and chemists stock capsules, syrups, and powders designed to help relive the symptoms of stomach upset and nausea. Most of these are fairly mild and typically include a mild pain reliever along with other more stomach-specific medications. These can be a good way to bring about relief, and if nothing else they may help you feel better while your body is working to heal itself. Most of these shouldn’t be taken until vomiting has stopped and you’re able to keep fluids and at least some food down.
If acute gastroenteritis is caused by bacteria, such as salmonella, antibiotics may be the best way to treat the condition and bring about healing. Antibiotics are powerful medications that usually have to be prescribed by a doctor or other qualified healthcare provider. They are usually an effective treatment for bacterial infections, but they won’t usually work for inflammation caused by a virus or food-borne illness.
Most cases of acute gastroenteritis clear up in a few days. In addition to fluids, getting plenty of rest will usually help build strength back up. Call a doctor if symptoms continue for more than five days, or two days in infants and young children — or any time you’re concerned about serious dehydration.