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What is Gastroenteritis?

By: Jody Ehrhardt - Updated: 15 Dec 2010 | comments*Discuss
 gastroenteritis Digestive Tract

Gastroenteritis is the common term used to describe any inflammation or irritation that occurs in the gastric or digestive tract. There are many different causes, symptoms, and types of gastroenteritis, many of which are very mild in severity. However, any case of gastroenteritis needs to be taken seriously since the condition causes over five million deaths each year worldwide. The best way to avoid the serious complications of gastroenteritis is to understand the disease, its symptoms, and its causes.

What is Gastroenteritis?

Inflammation or irritation that takes place in the oesophagus, stomach, and intestines and includes symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhoea, and abdominal pain is classified as gastroenteritis. This condition is sometimes called "stomach flu", although it has no connection to influenza, because the symptoms are so similar in nature and duration.

Although mild gastroenteritis is not fatal the condition does carry some serious risks. With repeated vomiting the risk of dehydration is present and requires prompt medical assistance. Gastroenteritis can also become very serious very quickly in infants, chronically ill individuals, and the elderly. And, while viral gastroenteritis usually clears up on its own, bacterial gastroenteritis requires prompt medical attention and medication and can become serious if left untreated.

The Causes of Gastroenteritis

Since the term gastroenteritis defines many different types of digestive aliments there are many causes for the condition. Things like food allergies, improper diet, food poisoning, and excessive alcohol or tobacco use can lead to gastroenteritis. Other causes include viral infections, bacterial infections, intestinal parasites, stress, and the use of certain medications.

Certain medications, such as antibiotics, aspirin, and cortisone, and the disorder known as stress can weaken the immune system. When the immune system is not functionally properly the body is more susceptible to infection, especially infection like gastroenteritis. When taking any of these medications, or during periods of high stress, you need to be aware of the risk of gastroenteritis and discuss any symptoms with your doctor immediately since your body will not be able to fight the inflammation on its own.

Viral gastroenteritis is the most common form of gastroenteritis and is highly contagious. Children in nurseries/pre-schools, the elderly living in nursing homes, and students living in student halls are all at a higher risk of developing viral gastroenteritis because of the close proximity in which they breathe and interact. The same is true for any large groups of people living closely together, like those in the military, because the virus responsible for the infection is easily carried through the air or via close contact.

Bacterial gastroenteritis is less common but usually more serious. Infection with both bacterial and viral gastroenteritis can happen through contaminated water, contaminated food, the sharing of eating utensils, contact with an infected person, and poor hygiene habits. Parasitic infections can be developed through the ingestion of raw seafood, contact with infected human or animal wastes, and the drinking of contaminated water.

The best way to avoid contamination and protect yourself from developing any type of gastroenteritis is to wash your hands. Frequent hand washing with an anti-bacterial soap, especially after handling raw food, using the bathroom, or shaking hands with another individual, will reduce your risk of developing this digestive condition by over 75%. To further protect yourself from infection you should avoid consuming raw meats and fish, practice good cleaning techniques when preparing food, and avoid drinking tap water when travelling.

Gastroenteritis can affect anyone of any age. Plus, the condition can be contracted at any time. Your best defence against this irritating, and sometimes serious, condition is knowledge and prevention.

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