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What is gastroenteritis?

Gastroenteritis is inflammation of the stomach and the gut that can cause diarrhoea and vomiting. Most episodes of gastroenteritis do not require being admitted to hospital and can be managed at home.

What causes gastroenteritis?

A virus is the major cause of gastroenteritis in children but there can be other infections such as bacteria or parasites that can also cause gastroenteritis.

What are the signs and symptoms of gastroenteritis?

The time in between catching the infection and the start of symptoms depends on the cause of gastroenteritis. It can range from a few hours to a couple of weeks. Your child will have either some or all of the symptoms including:

  • diarrhoea which may contain blood or mucus, or be watery or frothy
  • vomiting
  • tummy ache
  • fever

One of the main risks of gastroenteritis in children, particularly for babies and young children is that they can become dehydrated. This means that the body loses more fluid than it is able to take in.

If your child is unable to take enough fluid by mouth they may need to be admitted to hospital to have the fluid either through a tube in their nose or by a drip into their vein.

What signs do I need to look for to check my child is dehydrated?

Signs of dehydration include:

  • dry mouth and tongue
  • less tears when crying
  • tired or sleepy
  • dark shadows under the eyes
  • less wet nappies or not passed urine for up to 10 hours
  • when skin pinched gently between the fingers it stays up for a second or two
  • soft spot in the top of a baby’s head is more sunken than normal
  • changed breathing, either faster or slower and deeper than usual

If you are concerned about your child’s illness you should either seek further medical advice from your family doctor or ring NHS 111.

What treatment can I give to help stop my child becoming dehydrated?

It is important that your child has enough to drink. It is better to give small and frequent amounts of clear fluid to drink but avoid tea, coffee, sweetened fruit juice. Rehydration mixture such as Dioralyte can be bought from your local pharmacist but it is important to ask their advice before using the mixture. Your child should return to their normal diet as soon as they feel able to.

Breast fed babies

You should continue to breastfeed but try to feed more often and for longer. Extra fluid such as water should be offered in between feeds. Stop any extra formula feeds.

Formula fed babies

Continue to feed as normal but seek medical advice if you are concerned.

Can I give any other medicine or tablets to treat gastroenteritis?

Antibiotics are rarely necessary as most cases of gastroenteritis are caused by a virus. If your child is in pain you may want to give some paracetamol to help ease the tummy ache or to help control their fever.

Will my child need any tests?

The doctor may ask for a stool sample from your child to send to the lab for testing.

If there are any signs of dehydration a blood test may be taken to check that the sugars and salts are in the right balance in the body.

What can I do to help prevent gastroenteritis?

Good hygiene will help to prevent gastroenteritis being passed from person to person. It is important that you always wash your hands and teach your child to wash theirs:

  • after using the toilet
  • changing nappies
  • playing with pets or gardening
  • preparing and cooking food

When should my child go back to school or nursery?

Your child should stay off nursery or school for at least 48 hours after their symptoms of diarrhoea and vomiting have stopped, to avoid infecting others.

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Please note: this is a generic information sheet relating to care at Sheffield Children’s NHS FT. These details may not reflect treatment at other hospitals. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professionals’ instructions. If this resource relates to medicines, please read it alongside the medicine manufacturer’s patient information leaflet. If this information has been translated into another language from English, efforts have been made to maintain accuracy, but there may still be some translation errors. If you are unsure about any of the guidance in this resource or have specific questions about how it relates to your child, always ask your healthcare professional for further advice.

Resource number: WD34-10

Resource Type: Article

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