Last updated:

Reviewed by:

Dr Rhianna McClymont

, Lead GP at Livi

Medically reviewed

Gastroenteritis is a common condition usually caused by a viral or bacterial infection and often gives you sickness and diarrhoea. Find out more about the symptoms of gastroenteritis and how to treat it.

What is gastroenteritis?

If you have gastroenteritis, the lining of your tummy or bowel will become inflamed, stopping it from working properly.

Often referred to as a ‘tummy bug’ or ‘food poisoning’, gastroenteritis can range in severity from a mild stomach upset to more severe sickness and diarrhoea. Although this can be unpleasant, it’s not usually serious and generally clears up within a week.

What causes gastroenteritis?

Gastroenteritis is usually caused by a virus like rotavirus or norovirus, or – less commonly, by a bacterial infection like Campylobacter, E. coli or Salmonella.

It is easily spread from one person to the next through tiny particles. This can happen by:

  • Being in close contact with someone who has the infection and breathing in small particles they have exhaled

  • Touching contaminated objects and surfaces that they’ve touched before you

  • Eating contaminated food that they’ve handled without washing their hands first

Food and drink can also be contaminated if it hasn’t been stored or cooked safely.

Gastroenteritis symptoms

The main symptoms of gastroenteritis are:

  • Diarrhoea (very loose, watery poo)

  • Feeling sick or being sick (vomiting)

  • Tummy pain

  • High temperature (fever)

You may also have aching muscles and headaches, and you’ll likely lose your appetite for a few days.

Repeated sickness and diarrhoea can also lead to dehydration – look out for the following symptoms:

  • Being very thirsty

  • Dry mouth

  • Dry skin

  • Feeling lightheaded

  • Peeing infrequently

Gastroenteritis treatment

Gastroenteritis isn’t usually diagnosed or treated by a doctor as it generally clears up on its own. The best approach is to rest at home and avoid close contact with others to stop the spread of infection.

You can help ease your symptoms at home by:

  • Drinking plenty of water to prevent dehydration

  • Taking over-the-counter pain relief if you have a temperature, headache or aching muscles

  • Resting as much as possible

  • Eating small amounts of plain foods like rice or bread

  • Taking rehydration sachets if you notice any of the signs of dehydration listed above

  • Asking your pharmacist to recommend anti-vomiting medication if the sickness is persistent

When to seek medical advice

As gastroenteritis is contagious, it’s not advisable to visit your GP surgery as you could risk infecting others.

If any of the following points apply to you, it’s best to call 111 for advice in the first instance:

  • You notice blood in your poo

  • You have severe dehydration symptoms, like losing consciousness or not urinating

  • You have a high temperature above 38°C

  • You’re constantly vomiting and can’t keep any fluids down

  • Symptoms don’t get better after a few days

  • You have kidney or liver disease or another long-term condition, like diabetes or inflammatory bowel disease

In some cases, the doctor may ask for a poo sample to send off for analysis. If it shows a bacterial infection is present, you may be given a course of antibiotics.

How to prevent gastroenteritis

If someone in your household has gastroenteritis, it’s a good idea to take the following steps to try and stop it from spreading:

  • Stay at home for at least 48 hours, or until the sickness and diarrhoea has stopped

  • Thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water after going to the toilet and before handling food

  • Keep surfaces and objects that you touch regularly disinfected

  • Avoid sharing towels, flannels, and kitchen utensils

  • Flush the toilet well and keep the toilet and the surrounding area clean

  • Wash clothing and bed linen at a high temperature

  • Avoid swimming for two weeks after your symptoms stop

The most infectious period is when symptoms start to 48 hours after all the symptoms have passed, so it’s important to stay alert even after you begin to feel better.

Last updated:
Reviewed by:
Dr Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP at Livi