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Gastroenteritis in Adults and Older Children

Condition Basics

What is gastroenteritis?

Gastroenteritis is an upset stomach. It causes nausea and vomiting. You may also have diarrhea or a fever. It is sometimes called "stomach flu," but it is not influenza. Germs like viruses and bacteria can cause it.

You can catch it from someone else who has it, or you can get it from foodborne illness. Food poisoning can happen if you eat foods that contain harmful germs. Germs can get into food while the food is growing, during processing, or when it is prepared. You may have become ill after eating meat or eggs that weren't cooked enough or by eating other unsafe foods or drinking unsafe water.

You will probably begin to feel better in 1 or 2 days, but you might feel bad for a week. In the meantime, get plenty of rest, and make sure you do not become dehydrated. Dehydration occurs when your body loses too much fluid. This can happen when you throw up a lot or have diarrhea.

How can you care for yourself at home?

Here are some things you can do to help you feel better.

  • Drink plenty of fluids. Choose water and other clear liquids until you feel better. If you have kidney, heart, or liver disease and have to limit fluids, talk with your doctor before you increase how much fluid you drink.
  • Drink fluids slowly, in frequent, small amounts. Drinking too much too fast can cause vomiting.
  • Use an electrolyte replacement drink (such as Pedialyte or Rehydralyte) to replace fluids and minerals, especially if vomiting or diarrhea lasts longer than 24 hours.
  • When you feel like eating again, start with small amounts of food.

Watch closely for any new or worse symptoms, such as fever, belly pain, or signs of dehydration. Be sure to contact your doctor if you have any problems or aren't getting better.

How can you prevent gastroenteritis?

The best thing you can do to keep from catching gastroenteritis from someone else is to make a habit of washing your hands often. This is especially important after you use the toilet, after you change a baby's diaper, and before you eat or prepare food.

Don't share personal items like forks and spoons, toothbrushes, and towels. Try not to be around others who have a stomach infection. Keep your hands away from your nose, eyes, and mouth.

You can prevent foodborne illness by taking steps to make sure your food is not contaminated:

  • Wash cutting boards and countertops often with hot, soapy water. Consider using disinfectant sprays or wipes on your counters.
  • Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.
  • Do not eat meats, dressings, salads, or other foods that have been kept at room temperature for more than 2 hours.
  • Use a thermometer to check your refrigerator. It should be between 1°C (34°F) and 4°C (40°F).
  • Defrost meats in the refrigerator or microwave, not on the kitchen counter.
  • Cook meat until it is well done.
  • Do not eat raw eggs or uncooked sauces made with raw eggs.
  • Do not take chances. If food looks or tastes spoiled, throw it out.
  • Be extra careful when you travel. In some places, you may not want to drink water from the tap (including ice cubes) or eat any raw foods.

Credits

Current as of: March 22, 2023

Author: Healthwise Staff
Clinical Review Board:
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine

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