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For most, gastroenteritis mild and brief

DEAR DOCTOR K: I was pretty sick recently, and my doctor said I had gastroenteritis. I’ve never had it before. How did I get it? And what can I do about it?

DEAR READER: I’ll bet you’ve had gastroenteritis before, but your doctor didn’t use that term. Gastroenteritis is an inflammation of the intestines. It causes diarrhea, abdominal cramps, nausea, loss of appetite and vomiting.

You most likely got gastroenteritis through a viral or bacterial infection. These are the two most common causes in adults.

Viral infections that cause gastroenteritis include the Norwalk virus, rotaviruses, adenoviruses and others. These viruses are very contagious; they can spread from one person to another on unwashed hands, or by sharing food or eating utensils with an infected person.

Salmonella, shigella, E. coli and many other bacteria can also cause gastroenteritis. They can spread through close contact with an infected person, or by drinking or eating infected food or water.

In otherwise healthy adults, gastroenteritis tends to be mild and brief. When it comes again, try the following until your symptoms subside:

• To prevent dehydration, drink plenty of fluids. Drink water, soft drinks, sports drinks, broth or oral rehydration fluids. If you are unable to drink a lot at once, take many smaller sips over a longer period.

• Once your nausea starts to subside, gradually resume a normal diet. Begin with clear soups, broth or sweetened gelatin desserts. Build up to rice, rice cereal and more substantial foods.

• Use over-the-counter anti-diarrhea medicines cautiously.

• Rest in bed.

To help prevent gastroenteritis in the future:

• Wash your hands after using the toilet or changing diapers.

• Wash your hands before and after preparing food, especially raw meat.

• Wash kitchen countertops and utensils thoroughly after they have been used to prepare meat.

• Never drink unpasteurized milk or untreated water.

• Drink only bottled water or soft drinks if you travel to an area where sanitation is poor.