What causes gastroenteritis?
The most common cause of gastroenteritis is viral infection. Viruses such as rotavirus, adenovirus, astrovirus, and calicivirus and small round-structured viruses (SRSVs) are found all over the world. Exposure typically occurs through the fecal-oral route, such as by consuming foods contaminated by fecal material related to poor sanitation. However, the
infective dose can be very low (approximately 100 virus particles), so other routes of transmission are quite probable.
Gastroenteritis arises from ingestion of viruses, certain bacteria, or parasites. Food that has spoiled may also cause illness. Certain medications and excessive alcohol can irritate the digestive tract to the point of inducing gastroenteritis. Regardless of the cause, the symptoms of gastroenteritis include diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, and abdominal pain and cramps. Sufferers may also experience bloating, low fever, and overall tiredness. Typically, the symptoms last only two to three days, but some viruses may last up to a week.
A usual bout of gastroenteritis shouldn't require a visit to the doctor. However, medical treatment is essential if symptoms worsen or if there are complications. Infants, young children, the elderly, and persons with underlying disease require special attention in this regard.
Besides bacteria, several types of viruses, such as rotaviruses and the Norwalk virus, cause gastroenteritis. During the winter in temperate climates, rotaviruses cause most cases of diarrhea that are serious enough to send infants and toddlers to the hospital.
Certain intestinal parasites, particularly Giardia lamblia, stick to or invade the lining of the intestine and cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and a general sick feeling. The resulting infection, called giardiasis, is more common in cold climates but occurs in every region of the United States and throughout the world. If the disease becomes persistent (chronic), it can keep the body from absorbing nutrients, a condition known as a malabsorption syndrome. Another intestinal parasite, called Cryptosporidium, causes watery diarrhea that is sometimes accompanied by abdominal cramps, nausea, and vomiting. The resulting infection, called cryptosporidiosis, is usually mild in otherwise healthy people, but it may be severe or even fatal in people with a weakened immune system. Both Giardia and Cryptosporidium are most commonly acquired by drinking contaminated water.
The greatest danger presented by gastroenteritis is dehydration. The loss of fluids through diarrhea and vomiting can upset the body's electrolyte balance, leading to potentially life-threatening problems such as heart beat abnormalities (arrhythmia). The risk of dehydration increases as symptoms are prolonged. Dehydration should be suspected if a dry mouth, increased or excessive thirst, or scanty urination is experienced.