Medibank Health Directory

What is gastroenteritis?

Gastroenteritis (gastro) is a bowel infection that is commonly caused by viruses or bacteria, and as such is very infectious and easy to catch off others.

It causes diarrhoea and vomiting, and is usually only a short-lived condition. The main complication is dehydration. Babies and young children can quickly become quite ill with gastro.

Gastro is an illness caused by an infection in your digestive system. It will typically come on quite suddenly, and will cause diarrhoea, vomiting and abdominal cramps. Fortunately, it only lasts between 24 and 48 hours in the majority of cases.

Anyone can become infected with gastro; and you can have it more than once. To avoid getting gastro, you should practice good hygiene by washing hands with soap and water, and take extra care when looking after other people or children who have the virus – as it is easily passed from one person to another.

Causes of gastro

When gastro is caused by a virus, bacteria or parasite, it is easily spread from one infected person to another, and will often affect close contacts including whole families, aged-care facilities, hospitals and child care centres.

The virus can spread in a number of ways, such as through contaminated food or drink, touching surfaces that have been contaminated with the virus, or having direct contact with someone who has the virus.

Symptoms of gastro

The common symptoms of gastro include:

  • Nausea
  • Diarrhoea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal cramps

You may also experience headaches, fever, muscle aches and fatigue.

In the vast majority of cases, the symptoms should disappear as suddenly as they appeared – and be gone within 48 hours. Some children may continue to pass diarrhoea for up to 10 days.

Treatment of gastro

If you or your child has gastro, the most important thing to remember is to keep your fluids up. The constant diarrhoea and vomiting can put you at risk of dehydration – oral rehydration drinks can help.

In severe cases, you may need admission to hospital to counter the dehydration with a drip or other medicines.

With gastro, you should avoid or limit taking anti-vomiting or anti-diarrhoea drugs as these will keep the infection inside your body for longer. Consult your doctor or pharmacist.

Gastro in babies and young children

Continue breast feeding infants. Children with mild gastro can be cared for at home, by giving them small amounts of clear fluids regularly.

This will help to stop them from becoming dangerously dehydrated. Be aware that there are no medicines suitable for babies or young children to take to reduce vomiting or diarrhoea; yet you can give oral rehydration fluids if your child will take them.

When caring for children with gastro, wash your hands well and immediately remove and clean bedding that has been soiled by diarrhoea or vomit. You should also keep your child away from others for 48 hours after the diarrhoea or vomiting stops to help prevent the spread of the virus.

If you have a baby under 6 months old with gastro – or a child who has become extremely dehydrated from gastro, they should be seen by a doctor as you may need to admit them to hospital to rehydrate them. 

This fact sheet on babies, children and gastro has some useful guidelines on when to see a doctor and how to care for your sick children.

Different types of gastrointestinal disorders

As well as the common gastro, there are many different types of gastrointestinal disorders, many of which display the same symptoms as gastro. Indeed, gastro-like symptoms can be caused by other thinks such as bacterial toxins, chemicals and certain medications.

Further information and sources


This article is of a general nature only. You should seek medical advice if you think you or your child may have symptoms of gastro.