Gastroenteritis is an infection of the stomach and intestines that causes diarrhea. It can also cause vomiting and other symptoms in some cases. This infection frequently occurs in babies and children.

While the infection is usually mild, it can cause dehydration or a loss of necessary fluids and minerals from the body that may require medical attention.

This article discusses gastroenteritis in children, including the causes, symptoms, and more.

A person feeding milk to a child who may have gastroenteritis.Share on Pinterest
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Gastroenteritis may be the result of a bacterial, viral, fungal, or parasitic organism. The most common viral cause of gastroenteritis is norovirus. The most common bacterial causes are Escherichia coli (E. coli) and Salmonella.

A child may come in contact with these germs through people with an infection, or contaminated food or water.

The primary symptom of gastroenteritis is diarrhea. In addition to frequent, loose, and watery stool, a child may experience:

In some cases, a child may experience other symptoms such as nausea, body aches, and a headache.

Symptoms in infants

Infants with gastroenteritis will have similar symptoms to older children, including loose, watery stools. While they are sick, parents or caregivers should ensure that the infant stays hydrated by:

  • feeding them regularly with breast milk or formula
  • supplementing with Pedialyte
  • providing smaller quantities for feedings

Gastroenteritis typically lasts between 1–3 days. A parent or caregiver should contact the child’s doctor if the symptoms persist for longer than this.

Bacterial and viral gastroenteritis are very similar conditions with similar symptoms, including:

  • diarrhea
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • fever

The main difference is what causes them. In most cases, neither condition will require medical treatment from a doctor. Instead, a child will typically recover at home with a few days of rest and plenty of fluids.

A child typically requires no medical treatment providing they consume enough fluids. One of the most important steps to home treatment is to make sure that the child keeps drinking fluids that contain electrolytes. Some drinks that may help include:

  • broths
  • juice
  • sports drinks
  • water

Sugary juices and sports drinks may worsen diarrhea, so choose options that are low in sugar.

A child may lose their appetite while they are sick. When it returns, they can resume their usual diet. This will not affect their recovery.

A parent or guardian may not need to take their child to the doctor with gastroenteritis. If the child can get enough fluids, shows no signs of dehydration, and the illness clears within a few days, they will likely make a full recovery at home.

A parent should take their child to a doctor if the symptoms last longer than a few days, or they experience any of the following symptoms:

  • dark, tarry stools
  • blood in the stools
  • excessive thirst
  • no longer urinating or only producing a small amount of urine
  • dizziness
  • a rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • quickened breathing
  • sunken eyes
  • a lack of alertness

In most cases, a child will recover from gastroenteritis within a few days without medical treatment. It is important for a parent or guardian to make sure the child stays hydrated and replaces lost electrolytes while they are sick.

A doctor can determine if any treatment is necessary, and provide recommendations to help with rehydration. Do not give antidiarrheal medications to children.

In most cases, a doctor can diagnose gastroenteritis based on the child’s symptoms. Their pediatrician may ask about:

  • their symptoms, including when they began
  • their medical history
  • recent contact with others and trips away
  • current medical conditions or medications

The doctor will also perform a physical examination. The exam will typically include:

  • taking their blood pressure
  • checking the abdomen for pain or tenderness
  • listening to the abdomen
  • looking for signs of dehydration or fever

In some cases, a doctor may examine the child’s rectum to look for signs of blood in their stool. The rectal exam involves the doctor inserting a gloved finger into the rectum. They may also collect or have a parent or caregiver collect a stool sample for examination.

Any time a child experiences diarrhea, vomiting, or a combination of both symptoms, they risk dehydration. According to a 2019 article, gastroenteritis accounts for over 200,000 hospitalizations and over 300 deaths each year.

In addition to potential death, dehydration can cause complications such as organ damage, coma, and shock.

A child may also develop other long-term conditions following the infection, such as postinfectious irritable bowel syndrome or a microbiome imbalance. These can cause digestive symptoms that persist after the infection is gone.

People can take several steps to help prevent gastroenteritis. Parents and caregivers can make sure to regularly disinfect surfaces that come in contact with stool or vomit.

In addition, children and adults should take actions that include:

  • avoiding contact with someone who has gastroenteritis
  • washing hands after using the bathroom, changing diapers, or coming in contact with bodily fluids
  • washing hands after touching raw food

Parents and caregivers should also arrange for infants under 8 months old to receive the rotavirus vaccine. This vaccine can reduce the risk of a child developing gastroenteritis due to rotavirus. People can discuss this vaccine with their pediatrician.

Gastroenteritis typically affects children. The illness causes diarrhea and sometimes other symptoms that include nausea and vomiting. The infection typically clears on its own without the need for medical treatments.

The main risk of gastroenteritis is dehydration. A parent or guardian should make sure to keep the child well-hydrated and call a doctor if they are not taking fluids or show signs of dehydration.