Gastroenteritis in children

Gastroenteritis is an infection of the bowel that causes vomiting and diarrhoea.

Gastroenteritis is most commonly caused by viruses but can also be caused by infections with bacteria or parasites. Rotavirus is the most common cause of gastroenteritis in children.

What are the symptoms of gastroenteritis?

As well as diarrhoea (more frequent or watery bowel movements) and vomiting, children may also have fever and abdominal pains.

The major concern is that children with gastroenteritis may become dehydrated (dry) because they lose too much fluid through vomiting and diarrhoea. Babies and young children are particularly prone to dehydration.

The main symptoms of dehydration are being thirsty and not passing very much urine. Signs of dehydration may include a dry mouth and sunken eyes. Signs of more severe dehydration include lethargy or drowsiness, rapid breathing, and cold hands or feet.

Diagnosis

Other illnesses can also present with vomiting and diarrhoea, so it is important that your child is assessed by the doctor so that the correct diagnosis is made. Your doctor will firstly take a history and examine your child. They may send a sample of a bowel movement to the laboratory for analysis.

Treatment of gastroenteritis

Children with mild gastroenteritis can usually be cared for at home. The main treatment is to keep the child drinking fluids to replace those lost through vomiting and diarrhoea, as well as keep up with the body's usual maintenance requirements for fluids.

Suitable fluids may include breast milk, oral rehydration fluids available from the chemist (e.g. Gastrolyte, Repalyte, Hydralyte, Pedialyte), or clear fluids such as cordial or fruit juice that have been diluted appropriately. Your doctor will advise as to the type of fluid and how much to give in your child’s case.

Children with more severe gastroenteritis may need to be admitted to hospital to be given fluids via a nasogastric tube (a tube through the nose into the stomach) or intravenous fluids (through a drip into a vein).

Children may be offered easily digested foods once vomiting has stopped, and food should generally not be stopped for longer than 24 hours.

Medicines to stop vomiting and diarrhoea should not be given to children, as they are not helpful and may be harmful.

Prevention

Gastroenteritis can be easily passed on, so children with gastroenteritis should not go to school or childcare, or mix with other children.

It is also important that you wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water, especially before food preparation and after changing nappies, to help prevent spread of infection.

An oral vaccine against rotavirus is funded as part of the National Immunisation Program Schedule in Australia and is recommended as part of routine childhood immunisation.

Last Reviewed: 14 November 2012
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References

1. Infectious diarrhea (revised February 2011). In: eTG complete. Melbourne: Therapeutic Guidelines Limited; 2012 Jul. http://online.tg.org.au/complete/ (accessed Nov 2012).
2. Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne. Gastroenteritis (gastro) (reviewed December 2010). http://www.rch.org.au/kidsinfo/fact_sheets/Gastroenteritis_gastro/ (accessed Nov 2012).
3. Immunise Australia Program. National Immunisation Program Schedule (May 2012). http://www.immunise.health.gov.au/internet/immunise/publishing.nsf/Content/nips2 (accessed Nov 2012).
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