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Gastroenteritis is inflammation of the stomach and bowel. The most common cause is a viral or bacterial infection.
The illness usually lasts for three to five days, and the two most common symptoms are diarrhoea and vomiting.
Read more about the symptoms of gastroenteritis.
A rotavirus is an infection of the stomach and bowel. It is spread when a child who is infected does not wash their hands properly after going to the toilet.
If the child leaves tiny samples of infected faeces on surfaces or utensils, they can be picked up by another child. Small droplets of infected faeces can also be carried in the air, which children can breathe in.
This section is about gastroenteritis in children. Read more about gastroenteritis in adults.
In most cases, gastroenteritis does not need to be diagnosed because the illness usually clears up without treatment.
You should see your doctor if:
Read more about diagnosing gastroenteritis.
Most cases of gastroenteritis in children are mild and usually pass within three to five days without the need for treatment.
However, young children, particularly those under two years of age, are at risk of dehydration, so it is very important that they drink plenty of fluids.
In severe cases of gastroenteritis, where there has been significant fluid loss, hospital treatment may be required so that fluid can be replaced intravenously (directly into a vein).
Read more about treating gastroenteritis.
As gastroenteritis can be very infectious, it is important to take steps to prevent it spreading from your child to other children. You should:
Read more about preventing gastroenteritis.
Rotavirus gastroenteritis is very common in children. It is estimated that every child will have at least one rotavirus infection before the age of five. Most infections occur among children aged between three months and three years old.
The first rotavirus infection tends to be the most severe because the body builds up immunity (resistance) to the virus afterwards. This is why these types of infections are extremely rare in adults.
Gastroenteritis usually begins with the symptoms of:
Your child may also have:
The symptoms of vomiting usually pass within one to two days. In most children, vomiting will not last longer than three days.
The symptoms of diarrhoea usually pass within five to seven days. Most children's diarrhoea symptoms will not last more than two weeks.
Gastroenteritis can cause dehydration, which can be more serious than the rotavirus infection itself. It is very important to be aware of the symptoms of dehydration so that you can recognise them in your child.
The symptoms of dehydration include:
Read more about dehydration.
Contact your doctor if you think your child is dehydrated.
Rotavirus gastroenteritis shares many of the initial symptoms of more serious childhood conditions. It is important to be aware of the signs and symptoms that suggest your child has a more serious condition.
Signs and symptoms to look out for are:
Contact your doctor for advice as soon as possible if you notice any of the above signs and symptoms.
Gastroenteritis is usually caused by a rotavirus that infects a child's stomach and bowel. The virus is highly infectious and is often spread to other children as a result of poor hygiene.
If an infected child does not wash their hands after going to the toilet, any rotaviruses on their hands will be transferred to whatever they touch, such as a glass, kitchen utensil or food.
If another child touches the contaminated object before touching their face, or if they eat contaminated food, they may become infected.
Rotavirus infections are easily spread in this way, particularly among young children who often forget to wash their hands after going to toilet or before eating. The virus can also survive for several days on surfaces or utensils.
This is why these types of infections often occur in places where there are a high number of young children, such as playgroups, nurseries and infant schools.
Rotaviruses affect one of the main functions of the intestines – the absorption of water from digested food into the body. This is why one of the most common symptoms of gastroenteritis is diarrhoea, and why dehydration is such a common complication.
In a small number of cases, gastroenteritis in children may be caused by factors other than the rotavirus. These include:
In most cases of gastroenteritis, a diagnosis is not needed because your child's symptoms should disappear after three to five days without treatment.
A diagnosis is usually only needed in certain situations, such as if:
To diagnose gastroenteritis, your doctor will take a stool (faeces) sample so that it can be checked for the presence of viruses, bacteria or parasites.
If your child has gastroenteritis, you will usually be able to treat them at home.
An important part of treatment is to assess whether your child has an increased risk of dehydration.
Your child may have an increased risk of dehydration if they:
If your child has symptoms of dehydration, use an oral rehydration solution (see below) before contacting your doctor. If your doctor is unavailable, contact your local out-of-hours service
The healthcare professional you speak to will ask questions about your child’s symptoms and their general health, to assess whether they are well enough to be treated at home or whether they need to be admitted to hospital (see below).
If your child does not appear to be dehydrated and has no increased risk of dehydration, you should continue to feed them as usual, whether with breast milk, other milk feeds or solids.
If your child is eating solids, encourage them to eat as soon as their vomiting is under control. There is no evidence that not allowing your child to eat will shorten their episodes of diarrhoea. Simple foods that are high in carbohydrates, such as bread, rice or pasta, are recommended.
Drinking fruit juice or fizzy drinks is not recommended because it can make the symptoms of diarrhoea worse.
The advice above still applies if your child does not appear to be dehydrated, but has an increased risk of becoming dehydrated. You should also give your child an oral rehydration solution.
Oral rehydration solutions usually come in sachets and are available without a prescription, over the counter, from your local pharmacist. You dissolve them in water and they help replace salt, glucose and other important minerals that are lost through dehydration.
If your child vomits after drinking an oral rehydration solution, wait 5–10 minutes before giving them some more. However, make sure that they drink it slowly. For example, you could try giving them a spoonful every few minutes.
It is usually recommended that your child drinks an oral rehydration solution each time they pass a large amount of watery stools. The exact amount that they should drink will depend on their size and weight.
Your pharmacist will be able to advise you. The manufacturer’s instructions that come with the solution will also provide information about the recommended dosage.
Admission to hospital is usually recommended if your child has signs and symptoms of severe dehydration such as:
It may also be recommended that your child is admitted to hospital if their symptoms get worse despite treatment with oral rehydration solution, or if they keep vomiting it up.
Treatment at hospital usually involves replacing lost fluids and other nutrients directly into the vein (intravenous fluid therapy). Most children respond very well to treatment and are able to leave hospital after a few days.
Symptoms of pain and fever can usually be relieved using paracetamol. Young children may find liquid paracetamol easier to digest than tablets.
Children under 16 years of age should not be given aspirin.
Anti-diarrhoeal medicine is not recommended for children under 12 years of age.
Medication to prevent vomiting (anti-emetics) is also not usually recommended for children because of the risk of adverse side effects, such as muscle spasms or allergic reactions. Consult your doctor before giving your child anti-emetic medicine.
As gastroenteritis can be highly infectious, it is important to take steps to prevent it spreading from your child to other children.
Even if you isolate your child, it may be possible for adults in your household to spread the infection to other children without realising it.
To prevent the spread of infection, it is recommended that you:
Practising good food hygiene will help your child avoid getting gastroenteritis as a result of food poisoning. For example:
Read more about food poisoning and home hygiene.
It's given as a liquid from a dropper straight into the baby's mouth for them to swallow at two months and then again at three months of age.
Two possible side effects of the vaccine are diarrhoea and irritability. These are usually mild and should disappear with time.
Read more about the rotavirus vaccine.
Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.