Your doctor will likely diagnose gastroenteritis based on symptoms, a physical exam and sometimes on the presence of similar cases in your community. A rapid stool test can detect rotavirus or norovirus, but there are no quick tests for other viruses that cause gastroenteritis. In some cases, your doctor may have you submit a stool sample to rule out a possible bacterial or parasitic infection.
There's often no specific medical treatment for viral gastroenteritis. Antibiotics aren't effective against viruses, and overusing them can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. Treatment initially consists of self-care measures.
Lifestyle and home remedies
To help keep yourself more comfortable and prevent dehydration while you recover, try the following:
- Let your stomach settle. Stop eating solid foods for a few hours.
- Try sucking on ice chips or taking small sips of water. You might also try drinking clear soda, clear broths or noncaffeinated sports drinks. Drink plenty of liquid every day, taking small, frequent sips.
- Ease back into eating. Gradually begin to eat bland, easy-to-digest foods, such as soda crackers, toast, gelatin, bananas, rice and chicken. Stop eating if your nausea returns.
- Avoid certain foods and substances until you feel better. These include dairy products, caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, and fatty or highly seasoned foods.
- Get plenty of rest. The illness and dehydration may have made you weak and tired.
- Be cautious with medications. Use many medications, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others), sparingly if at all. They can make your stomach more upset. Use acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) cautiously; it sometimes can cause liver toxicity, especially in children. Don't give aspirin to children or teens because of the risk of Reye's syndrome, a rare, but potentially fatal disease. Before choosing a pain reliever or fever reducer, discuss with your child's pediatrician.
For infants and children
When your child has an intestinal infection, the most important goal is to replace lost fluids and salts. These suggestions may help:
- Help your child rehydrate. Give your child an oral rehydration solution, available at pharmacies without a prescription. Talk to your doctor if you have questions about how to use it. Don't give your child plain water — in children with gastroenteritis, water isn't absorbed well and won't adequately replace lost electrolytes. Avoid giving your child apple juice for rehydration — it can make diarrhea worse.
- Get your child back to a normal diet slowly. Gradually introduce bland, easy-to-digest foods, such as toast, rice, bananas and potatoes.
- Avoid certain foods. Don't give your child dairy products or sugary foods, such as ice cream, sodas and candy. These can make diarrhea worse.
- Make sure your child gets plenty of rest. The illness and dehydration may have made your child weak and tired.
- Avoid giving your child over-the-counter anti-diarrheal medications, unless advised by your doctor. They can make it harder for your child's body to eliminate the virus.
If you have a sick infant, let your baby's stomach rest for 15 to 20 minutes after vomiting or a bout of diarrhea, then offer small amounts of liquid. If you're breast-feeding, let your baby nurse. If your baby is bottle-fed, offer a small amount of an oral rehydration solution or regular formula. Don't dilute your baby's already-prepared formula.
Preparing for your appointment
If you or your child needs to see a doctor, you'll likely see your health care provider first. If there are questions about the diagnosis, your doctor may refer you to an infectious disease specialist.
What you can do
Preparing a list of questions will help you make the most of your time with your doctor. Some questions you might want to ask your or your child's doctor include:
- What's the likely cause of the symptoms? Are there other possible causes?
- Is there a need for tests?
- What's the best treatment approach? Are there any alternatives?
- Is there a need to take medicine?
- What can I do at home to ease the symptoms?
What to expect from your doctor
Some questions the doctor may ask include:
- When did symptoms begin?
- Have the symptoms been continuous, or do they come and go?
- How severe are the symptoms?
- What, if anything, seems to improve symptoms?
- What, if anything, appears to worsen symptoms?
- Have you been in contact with anyone with similar symptoms?
What you can do in the meantime
Drink plenty of fluids. Stick with bland foods to reduce stress on your digestive system. If your child is sick, follow the same approach — offer plenty of fluids and bland food. If you're breast-feeding or using formula, continue to feed your child as usual. Ask your child's doctor if giving your child an oral rehydration solution, available without a prescription at pharmacies, would help.