How to keep your family safe from gastro

A gastro outbreak in Australia’s eastern states has forced one hospital to close wards and singer Pink to reschedule four shows after being hospitalised – so how can you avoid it?

Gastroenteritis – also known as “gastro”, “stomach flu” or “winter flu” – is common and highly contagious.

The bug causes inflammation the gut (stomach and intestines) and can lead to nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, stomach cramps and fever.

“What we most frequently see during winter is viral gastroenteritis – so viruses such as the rotavirus or norovirus infections, which spread very readily,” says Dr Vicki Shepherd, director of Communicable Diseases at NSW Health.

How does gastro spread so quickly?

Directly touching an infected person, or a surface contaminated by someone with gastro, can spread the virus rapidly.

“If you’re vomiting it can be in the vomit, but if you have diarrhoea it’s definitely there,” Dr Shepherd tells The House of Wellness radio team.

It tends to spread particularly quickly in highly populated places like child care centres, aged-care facilities and hospitals, where infection control is hard to implement.

How long does gastro last?

Dr Shepherd says symptoms usually only last 24 to 72 hours, but they can take a huge toll on our bodies.

“In very small children and in older people, it can hang around longer,” she says.

Gastro causes dehydration, so Dr Shepherd says very young or very old people may need to go to hospital for fluids.

How can you prevent gastro?

Parents should make sure their babies are vaccinated against rotovirus at six weeks and four months of age.

“We’ve been using that vaccine for a decade now and it’s been highly successful in reducing the number of infants admitted to hospital with gastroenteritis,” says Dr Shepherd.

But with no current vaccine against norovirus, handwashing is crucial to help avoid gastro.

“If you’re out and about on public transport, in the workplace, anywhere really – frequent handwashing will reduce the risk of you coming into contact with the bug,” says Dr Shepherd.

Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water, especially if caring for somoene with gastro. Alcohol-based hand gels can also be effective.

Which foods should you eat after having gastro?

Dietitian Susie Burrell says sufferers should be careful about reintroducing food after a bout of gastro.

“The gut has a series of antennae-like functions and (gastro) destroys that, so everything you eat can go through you,” she says.

Avoid dairy and fruit, because sugars and fibres will exacerbate gastro symptoms and prevent you from absorbing nutrients.

Susie suggests rebuilding the gut after gastro with simple foods like white bread and Vegemite, which contains replenishing B-group vitamins and salt.

Sports drinks and flat soft drinks can also be good before plain foods are reintroduced, she says.

“Gradually increase the complexity of what you’re eating, so maybe a plain chicken soup or some chicken breast with plain, reasonably low-fibre vegetables like carrots,” Susie says.

Then consider taking a probiotic to rebuild the gut and compensate for any medication you may have been on while ill.

It’s important to stay hydrated

The most important treatment for gastro is hydration, say the experts.

Frequent small sips of water, or sucking on ice chips, will help ensure you’re getting fluids in.

If you can’t tolerate water, a trip to hospital for IV fluids may be in order.