Introduction 

Gastroenteritis is a common condition where the stomach and intestines become inflamed. It is usually caused by a viral or bacterial infection.

The two main symptoms of gastroenteritis are diarrhoea and vomiting.

Read more about the symptoms of gastroenteritis.

What causes gastroenteritis?

In the UK, the two most common causes of gastroenteritis in adults are the norovirus and food poisoning (most often caused by salmonella or campylobacter bacteria).

These infections can interfere with the absorption of water and salts from the contents of your intestines into the body, which is why the most common symptom of gastroenteritis is watery diarrhoea and why there is a risk of dehydration.

Gastroenteritis can also have a number of other causes, including a rotavirus infection, although this is more common in children. Read more about gastroenteritis in children.

Seeing your GP

There's usually no need to see your GP if you have gastroenteritis because the symptoms are normally shortlived.

If your symptoms are severe or last longer than a few days, your GP may ask for a stool sample so that it can be checked for a specific bacterium or parasite. If a bacterium or parasite is identified, appropriate medication can be prescribed to treat the infection.

In some cases, blood tests and urine tests may be used to rule out other conditions.

Treating gastroenteritis

Most people don't need any specific treatment for gastroenteritis, but it's important to make sure you drink plenty of fluids to reduce your risk of dehydration.

An oral rehydration solution can be used by people who are particularly vulnerable to the effects of dehydration, such as elderly people or those with another existing condition.

Medications to treat the symptoms of gastroenteritis are not usually necessary, but they may be recommended if your diarrhoea or vomiting is particularly severe.

If there is a risk of you becoming significantly dehydrated, you may need to be admitted to hospital for treatment. This is because severe dehydration can be very serious and even potentially fatal in rare cases.

Read more about treating gastroenteritis.

Preventing gastroenteritis

As gastroenteritis is highly infectious, it is important to take steps to prevent it spreading to other people. These include:

  • washing your hands thoroughly with soap and water or an antibacterial hand wash after going to the toilet and before eating or preparing food
  • cleaning the toilet, including the handle and the seat, with disinfectant after each bout of vomiting or diarrhoea
  • not sharing towels, flannels, cutlery or utensils with other members of your household
  • not returning to work until you have had no symptoms for at least 48 hours

If you are frail, or have an underlying condition affecting your intestines or immune system, it may be useful to seek advice from your GP or a specialist before travelling to an area where there is a risk of picking up a gastrointestinal infection.

Read more about preventing gastroenteritis.

Norovirus

Find out what norovirus is, how to reduce your risk of getting it and what to do if you have it.

Media last reviewed: 19/11/2012

Next review due: 19/11/2014

Symptom checker

If you have a health problem, our symptom checker can help you manage it or find out where to go for help

Page last reviewed: 31/03/2014

Next review due: 31/03/2016