What is gastroenteritis?

Gastroenteritis is the illness that gives you diarrhoea and often makes you vomit.

Symptoms of gastro

Gastro symptoms might include:

Your child might not feel like eating or drinking or might have trouble keeping down food or drink because of vomiting. If your child doesn’t get enough fluid, there’s a risk he’ll get dehydrated.

Does your child need to see a doctor about gastro?

Take your child to the GP if:

  • there’s a lot of diarrhoea
  • your child is vomiting often and can’t seem to keep any fluids down
  • there’s blood in your child’s poo
  • your child is under the age of six months and has gastro symptoms.

Take your child to a hospital emergency department straight away if:

  • your child seems to be dehydrated – she’s not passing urine, is pale and thin, has sunken eyes, cold hands and cold feet, is drowsy or cranky
  • your child has severe stomach pain
  • your child’s vomit is a green colour or has blood in it
  • you’re worried that your child is very unwell.

You know your child best, so trust your instincts if your child doesn’t seem well. Signs that your child has a serious illness that requires urgent medical attention include severe pain, drowsiness, pale or blue skin, dehydration, troubled breathing, seizures and reduced responsiveness.

Treatment for gastro

Most cases of gastroenteritis in children aren’t serious, but it’s important to make sure that your child gets enough fluid.

Fluids
Give your child small amounts to drink often – for example, a few mouthfuls every 15 minutes.

It’s best to use an oral rehydration fluid like Gastrolyte®, Hydralyte™, Pedialyte® or Repalyte®. You can buy these fluids over the counter from a pharmacy. These products might come as premade liquid, powder or icy poles for freezing. Make sure that you make up the liquid carefully according to the instructions on the packet.

If you can’t get oral rehydration fluid, you can use diluted lemonade, cordial or fruit juice. Use one part of lemonade or juice to four parts of water. Full-strength lemonade, cordial or fruit juice might make the diarrhoea worse, so don’t give these to your child.

If you have a young breastfed baby, keep breastfeeding but feed more often. You can give your child extra oral rehydration fluid between feeds.

If your baby is bottle fed, give him oral rehydration fluid for the first 24 hours only and then reintroduce full-strength formula in smaller, more frequent feeds. You can still offer extra oral rehydration fluids between feeds.

Getting your child to drink
Your child might not be keen to drink. You can try to get her drinking more by giving her drinks via a syringe or spoon, and letting her suck icy poles. You can get Hydralyte™ icy poles from pharmacies – they have about 50 ml of water each.

To get enough fluid into your child, you might need to be patient and just keep trying. The key is offering small amounts often and watching for the signs of dehydration.

Food
Your child might refuse food to start with. If he’s hungry, you can give him food at the same time as fluid. It’s generally best to start with bland foods like plain biscuits, bread, rice, potato or jelly. He can start eating other foods gradually.

Avoid giving your child dairy products for 7-10 days after an episode of gastro, because this might make the diarrhoea go on longer.

Additional treatment and complications
If your child is very dehydrated or can’t keep any oral fluids down, she might need fluids to be given through a tube that goes up her nose and into her stomach or directly into a vein through a drip. In this case, she’ll have to go into hospital.

Occasionally your child might develop diarrhoea after the gastroenteritis has settled. This is caused by a type of temporary lactose intolerance. In older children you can swap to a lactose-free milk until the diarrhoea improves. If your baby is breastfed, you can continue to breastfeed. If your baby is normally formula fed, your doctor can advise you about which formula to choose.

Don’t treat your child with antidiarrhoeal medications. There’s no evidence to show that these treatments work. Your child probably doesn’t need antibiotics either, because the most common cause of gastroenteritis is a virus, which doesn’t respond to antibiotics.

Preventing gastro

Gastro spreads easily.

You can help prevent the spread of gastro by making sure everyone in the family washes their hands regularly and doesn’t share drink bottles, cups or food utensils.

If your child has gastro, keep him away from other children and school or child care until he’s had no vomiting or diarrhoea for at least 24 hours.

Causes of gastro

Gastro is usually caused by a virus and sometimes by a bacterial or parasite infection. These germs cause inflammation of the stomach and intestine walls, which in turn causes the diarrhoea and vomiting.

Rotavirus is a common cause of viral gastroenteritis in children. It’s becoming less common, because rotavirus immunisation is part of Australia’s National Immunisation Program. Your baby gets this immunisation at two and four months.