How Do I Treat Acute Gastroenteritis?

M. DePietro

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.

Acute gastroenteritis can be caused by a bacterial infection, like Salmonella.
Acute gastroenteritis can be caused by a bacterial infection, like Salmonella.

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.

Applesauce is part of the BRAT diet, which is often recommended for people with gastroenteritis.
Applesauce is part of the BRAT diet, which is often recommended for people with gastroenteritis.

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.

Stomach cramps are one symptom of acute gastroenteritis.
Stomach cramps are one symptom of acute gastroenteritis.

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.

Rice is part of the BRAT diet which is used to treat gastroenteritis.
Rice is part of the BRAT diet which is used to treat gastroenteritis.

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.

If dehydration is suspected, intravenous fluids may be administered.
If dehydration is suspected, intravenous fluids may be administered.

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 is important to stay hydrated while dealing with acute gastroenteritis.
It is important to stay hydrated while dealing with acute gastroenteritis.

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.

Acute gastroenteritis may cause excessive vomiting, leading to dehydration.
Acute gastroenteritis may cause excessive vomiting, leading to dehydration.

Over-the-Counter Medications

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.

Antibiotics

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.

Vomiting and diarrhea are signs of gastroenteritis.
Vomiting and diarrhea are signs of gastroenteritis.

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Discussion Comments

Moldova

@Cafe41 - I know what you mean because that stomach and back pain is like no other. In fact, the same thing happened to me and every time I would cough, my insides would hurt. I was sore for a few days.

I also think acute diarrhea is awful too because you also feel a lot of pain and the problem is so embarrassing.

cafe41

I just wanted to say that about a month and a half ago I had a horrible case of bacterial gastroenteritis. It was really weird because my bacterial gastroenteritis symptoms started with a severe lower back pain that later wrapped around to my stomach.

It was like I was having back cramps. Then I started to get really dizzy and began vomiting. It was awful. I vomited several times that night and I figured out it was because of some leftovers that I ate from the night before. The restaurant was really nice that I had gone to so I was surprised that this happened to me. I will never step foot in there again.

I had to eat applesauce and flat soda with cracker for a few days. When I was finally able to eat regular food, I was kind of scared of eating but I got over that real quick. The only thing that I did not have was diarrhea. Thank goodness that I didn’t have to worry about treating diarrhea because it would not know what to do with myself. It would have been far worse.

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