Beating gastro

Hunter New England Health is reminding the community of some simple hygiene precautions to take to avoid a nasty case of gastroenteritis.

Hunter New England Health Public Health Physician, Dr David Durrheim said that the peak season for gastro in the community has begun.

"Outbreaks can occur throughout the year but cases tend to rise during winter and early spring.  We have already seen a number of outbreaks of norovirus gastroenteritis this season, particularly affecting aged care institutions and child care settings," Dr Durrheim said.

Dr Durrheim said there are two things people can do to reduce the spread of gastro: take care with hand washing and stay home while they recover.

"The best way to avoid viral gastroenteritis is by washing your hands thoroughly with soap and running water before handling and eating food. It is also important to always wash your hands after using the toilet," he said.

"Alcohol-based hand gel is an effective alternative if soap and water are not readily available."

The elderly are particularly vulnerable to dehydration from a bout of gastro so it is unwise to visit people in hospitals or in aged care facilities if you have diarrhoea.

"Outbreaks in these environments can more readily occur with devastating consequences," Dr Durrheim said.

"This is why sometimes a local aged care facility or hospital will ask family members to delay visiting if an outbreak occurs so that the spread of the virus can be contained," he said.

Child-care centres and schools are also susceptible to outbreaks and babies are another vulnerable group.

"It's important to remember that babies can become dehydrated very quickly with gastro.

Any baby less than six months old who has gastro should be taken to your GP or local emergency department immediately," Dr Durrheim said.

Gastro is a common illness which is caused by a number of different bugs. Viral gastroenteritis due to norovirus and rotavirus is more common in winter and early spring but bacteria and food poisoning can also cause gastro.

"Some of these viruses, particularly norovirus, are highly infectious and can be spread very easily from person to person. They can also be spread through indirect contact with contaminated surfaces," Dr Durrheim said.

Symptoms of viral gastro usually last between one and three days, but sometimes longer.

Sometimes vomiting, diarrhoea, fever and loss of appetite can make a person lose more fluid than they can keep down. This may lead to dehydration, which needs to be treated immediately.

Signs of dehydration include passing less urine than usual, increased thirst and dry mouth, sunken eyes, tiredness, and irritability.  If dehydration cannot be rapidly corrected by increasing fluid intake, then medical care should be sought.

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