The gastrointestinal tract in the human body begins at the mouth and travels through the esophagus and stomach into the intestines. After food has been chewed it then passes through the esophagus and into the stomach. As food is digested, it passes through the intestines where the body utilizes the nutrients and discards waste products through the colon and rectum. On occasion the gastrointestinal (GI) system may be invaded by a parasite, virus, or bacteria, and may become agitated and inflamed, after which point gastroenteritis can result. Gastroenteritiscalled also often be called infectious diarrhea. Rotavirus, norovirus, and Campylobacter viruses are often the causative agents in humans.
People with gastroenteritis often feel like they have the stomach flu. The average person is susceptible to gastroenteritis and most cases are mild with very few requiring hospitalization unless there are extreme circumstances. The body can usually fight its way through the infection and recover without major medical intervention. People at particularly high risk for developing it are those whose immune systems have been weakened by respiratory, cardiac, or other diseases. The chances of becoming infected with a virus that can cause gastroenteritis are also high among infants and children in day care facilities, people who travel abroad, members of the military, and students who live in dormitory housing.
Among the sources of gastroenteritis is the adenovirus which can also be responsible for bronchitis, colds, cystitis (bladder infections), conjunctivitis (commonly called pink eye), diarrhea, fever, pharyngitis, pneumonia, rashes, and respiratory infections. An adenovirus can be spread through physical contact like shaking hands, through particles expelled into the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes, and through contact with the stool of a sick infant during diaper changes. It may also be picked up when touching a contaminated surface and then touching eyes, mouth, or nose. Adenovirus can also be passed through the water in a swimming pool without adequate chlorination.
Signs and Symptoms of Gastroenteritis
There are several ways in which a person may contract gastroenteritis with unwashed hands being the most common route. Physical contact with an infected person can spread the disease, as can the use of unsanitary surfaces and utensils in the kitchen and the ingesting of contaminated food and water. Symptoms can often include:
- Abdominal cramping and pain
- Clamminess of the skin
- Pain in the joints and muscles
- Profuse sweating
Gastroenteritis can be diagnosed by laboratory tests and a doctor’s examination. After obtaining a medical history and list of symptoms, the doctor may perform a physical exam of the patient’s abdomen, pelvis, and rectum. A stool specimen may be collected so that the lab can run a culture to identify the virus, bacteria, or parasite which is causing the illness. Except in the cases of pregnant women, susceptible infants, or the elderly, a hospital stay is usually not necessary. Antibiotics are not effective on viral infections; nevertheless, an antibiotic may be prescribed to help avoid any secondary infections. The doctor may or may not suggest anti-diarrheal medications, depending on the patient’s condition and severity of the symptoms.
Because vomiting and diarrhea bring on dehydration, the patient may also suffer from dry mouth and severe thirst, pale dry skin which sags or sinks in around the eyes, very dark urine, reduced urine output, and sudden weight loss. It is imperative that the patient increase the intake of necessary fluids to rehydrate and replace electrolytes. If hospitalization is required, this is accomplished through the use of intravenous fluids. If the patient can remain at home, the doctor will suggest electrolyte rich fluids accompanied by a diet of foods which will help replace nutrients. Rehydration is a key treatment for gastroenteritis.
The most effective way to prevent gastroenteritis is to wash hands frequently and thoroughly using soap and running water. In the kitchen care must be exercised when working with raw meats, raw poultry, and eggs. These items should be refrigerated in a compartment separate from foods which will be consumed raw. All utensils and surfaces require cleansing and sanitizing after use. Only non-porous cutting boards should be used in the preparation of raw meat. For those who travel, drinking bottled water should be the regular practice to avoid unsanitary water sources.
image courtesy: Dr Graham Beards at en.wikipedia