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Key facts

  • Gastroenteritis ('gastro') is a common and often highly infectious condition that affects the stomach and intestines. It can cause vomiting and diarrhoea.
  • Babies under 6 months should always be seen by a doctor if they have gastro.
  • Gastroenteritis is treated by drinking fluids, and doesn't usually require medication.
  • Reduce your risk of catching or spreading gastro by washing your hands well after using the bathroom, changing nappies or handling food.
  • Children should not return to school and adults should not return to work until 48 hours after the last episode of diarrhoea and/or vomiting.

What is gastroenteritis?

Gastroenteritis is a common and often highly infectious condition that affects your gut (the stomach and intestines). It is also known as ‘gastro’ and can cause vomiting, diarrhoea and stomach pain and nausea.

Gastro is not usually serious but it can make you very dehydrated. Milder forms can be managed at home by drinking fluids.

Should I keep my child home from school?

Here’s a list of common childhood illnesses, including gastroenteritis, and their recommended exclusion periods.

What are the symptoms of gastroenteritis?

If you have gastroenteritis, you may have:

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use our diarrhoea and vomiting Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

What causes gastroenteritis?

Gastro may be caused by:

  • viruses (these are by far the most common cause and include the rotavirus and norovirus infections)
  • bacteria, such as salmonella
  • toxins produced by bacteria
  • parasites, such as giardia
  • chemicals, such as toxins in poisonous mushrooms
Illustration of gastroenteritis
Gastroenteritis inflames the lining of the stomach and intestines.

How is gastroenteritis diagnosed?

A doctor can diagnose gastro after talking to and examining you. If you’re not getting better, the doctor may want to do a stool (poo) test to find out what's making you ill.

How is gastroenteritis treated?

The most important treatment for gastroenteritis is to drink fluids. Frequent sips are easier for young children than a large amount all at once. Keep drinking regularly even if you are vomiting. Gastro should only last for a few days and it doesn’t usually require medication.

Older people, young children and those with a weakened immune system are at risk of developing more serious illnesses.

If you are very sick with gastro, you may need to go to hospital where you may be put on a drip.

Babies and children with gastro

If you have a baby under 6 months, they should be checked by a doctor. It’s also a good idea to have babies older than 6 months and young children with gastro checked by a doctor in case they are dehydrated. You can get rehydration fluids from a pharmacy. These are the best fluids to use in cases of gastro, especially for children.

If you can’t get any, or your child refuses to drink it, giving diluted fruit juice (1 part juice to 4 parts of water) is reasonable. You could try a cube of ice or an ice-block if your child won’t drink. Avoid milk and other dairy products and do not give juice, sodas, sports drinks or other soft drinks because the sugar may make the diarrhoea worse. It is fine to eat once you feel like it.

Babies can continue milk feeds throughout the illness, with rehydration fluid between feeds. Medication for nausea or diarrhoea can be useful for adults, but may not be safe for children. Antibiotics are rarely helpful.

When should I see my doctor?

See a doctor immediately if your child cannot keep down a sip of liquid or has dehydration (dry mouth, no urine for 6 hours or more, or lethargy). Babies under 6 months should always be seen by a doctor if they have gastro.

Adults and older children should seek medical advice if their symptoms include a fever, severe abdominal pain, blood in their diarrhoea or signs of dehydration, such as thirst and decreased urination, lethargy, dry mouth, sunken eyes or feeling faint when standing.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — Our Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use our Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

Can gastroenteritis be prevented?

To reduce your risk of catching or spreading gastro, wash your hands well after using the bathroom or changing nappies, and before eating or preparing food.

If you have gastro and the cause has not been identified, it’s important to stay home, away from work, school or childcare, until you have had no symptoms for at least 24 hours. You may need to stay home for 48 hours until the cause has been identified.

If your work involves handling food or looking after children, the elderly, or patients, do not return to work until 48 hours after the last episode of vomiting or diarrhoea.

If you are travelling to places where the local tap water is not safe to drink, only use bottled water for drinking and brushing your teeth; don't put ice in drinks; only eat fruit you can peel yourself; and avoid uncooked food, including salads.

Children and vaccination for rotavirus

Rotavirus is a virus that causes severe gastroenteritis in babies and young children. All young children should receive the rotavirus vaccine at about 2 months and 4 months of age. A third dose at 6 months may be needed depending on the brand of vaccine used.

This vaccine is effective in preventing the rotavirus infection in about 7 out of every 10 children vaccinated. It is also effective in preventing severe gastroenteritis in about 9 out of every 10 infants vaccinated. The vaccine provides protection for up to 5 years.

Other questions you might have

How is gastroenteritis spread?

Infectious gastro can be spread very easily. You might get it from having contact with an infected person (or their vomit or poo). It can also spread via contaminated food or water.

It’s important to stay home, away from work, school or childcare, until 48 hours after the last episode of vomiting or diarrhoea.

What should you eat when you have gastro?

Try to eat small amounts of food often if you feel nauseous. When your appetite returns, start with bland, easy-to-digest foods, such as plain crackers, toast, bananas, rice and chicken.

How long does it take to get over gastro?

Gastroenteritis symptoms usually last for 1 to 2 days, but occasionally they may persist for as long as 10 days.

Resources and support

For more information and support, try these resources:

  • the GESA (Gastroenterological Society of Australia) website, where you can find more information on gastro in kids.

Other languages

Do you prefer other languages than English? This website offers translated information:

  • Health Translations, Victoria: Gastroenteritis (in Arabic, Chinese, Dari, Greek, Italian, Khmer, Macedonian, Serbian, Turkish and Vietnamese)

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: August 2019

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