woman holding her stomach in pain

Understanding and Managing Gastrointestinal Disorders: From Symptoms to Treatments

Gastrointestinal disorders affect your gastrointestinal (GI) tract, which runs from your mouth to your anus. There are two types of gastrointestinal disorders: functional disorders and structural disorders.

Functional gastrointestinal disorders are the most common problems that affect the GI tract. If you have a functional gastrointestinal disorder, your GI tract will look normal in exams, but your GI tract will not operate properly. Functional gastrointestinal disorders include bloating, constipation, and diarrhea. Examples are gas, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and nausea.

If you have a structural gastrointestinal disorder, your GI tract will look abnormal in exams and not lose functionality. Surgery is sometimes needed to correct structural abnormalities. Common examples of structural gastrointestinal disorders include colon cancer and polyps, diverticular disease, and hemorrhoids. Other common examples are inflammatory bowel disease, stenosis, and strictures.

Understanding Gastrointestinal Symptoms and Conditions

This section will discuss the symptoms of a stomach virus, gastroenteritis, irritable bowel syndrome, and other gastrointestinal diseases.

Stomach Virus Symptoms

Common symptoms of a stomach virus (commonly referred to as the stomach flu) include:

  • Low-grade fever
  • Nausea
  • Occasional headaches
  • Occasional muscle aches
  • Stomach cramps
  • Stomach pain
woman holding her stomach in pain
  • Vomiting
  • Watery, usually non-bloody diarrhea

There are several similarities and differences between a stomach virus and food poisoning. The stomach flu and food poisoning usually have different causes and are transmitted in different ways, but both can be caused by norovirus. Although stomach viruses and food poisoning can cause similar symptoms, the onset of symptoms after exposure and the duration of illness tend to be much shorter with food poisoning than with a stomach virus.

Gastroenteritis Symptoms

Symptoms of gastroenteritis can include:

  • Abdominal cramps
  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloating
  • Blood in the stool in some cases
  • Diarrhea
  • Generally feeling unwell (such as body aches and feeling lethargic)
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Pus in the stool in some cases
  • Vomiting

Depending on the circumstances, you or your child may need to see a doctor for gastroenteritis. If you have a baby under the age of six months who has gastroenteritis, you should take them to the doctor rather than attempting to treat symptoms at home.

A child with gastroenteritis who becomes dehydrated or cannot keep down liquids should immediately see a doctor. Adults or older children should seek medical attention if they experience blood in their diarrhea, dehydration, fever, or severe abdominal pain.

Symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common gastrointestinal disorder that affects the stomach and intestines. IBS does not usually cause severe symptoms, but it is a chronic
condition that requires long-term treatment.

Critical symptoms of IBS to look out for include:

  • Abdominal bloating, cramping, or pain during a bowel movement
  • Abdominal pain during a bowel movement
  • Bloating
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Gas
  • Changes in the appearance or frequency of your bowel movements
  • Mucus in the stool
  • The sensation of incomplete evacuation
woman sitting on a toilet

Gastrointestinal Diseases Symptoms

There are several other gastrointestinal diseases and common symptoms of these diseases.

Other gastrointestinal diseases include:

  • Cholangitis, cholecystitis, and gallstones
  • Esophagus problems, including achalasia, esophagitis, and stricture (narrowing)
  • Intestinal problems, such as celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, diverticulitis, intestinal cancer, intestinal infections, intestinal ischemia, intestinal polyps, malabsorption, short bowel syndrome, and ulcerative colitis
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), hiatal hernia, and peptic ulcer disease
  • Liver problems, including alcoholic hepatitis, autoimmune hepatitis, cirrhosis, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and liver failure
  • Pancreatitis and pancreatic pseudocyst
  • Rectal problems, including anal fissures, hemorrhoids, proctitis, and rectal prolapse
  • Stomach problems, including gastric ulcers and gastritis

Common symptoms that indicate a gastrointestinal disease include:

  • Weight loss
  • Weight gain
  • Vomiting
  • Pain in the belly
  • Problems with swallowing
  • Nausea
  • Incontinence
  • Heartburn
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Bloating
  • Bleeding

The Causes Behind Digestive System Disorders

This section will discuss the causes of diarrhea, stomach bugs, food poisoning, and chronic vomiting.

Causes of Diarrhea

The causes of diarrhea vary depending on whether you are dealing with acute or chronic diarrhea.

The most common cause of acute diarrhea is viral gastroenteritis. Many cases of viral gastroenteritis in children are caused by rotavirus, while most cases in adults result from norovirus.

There are different types of chronic diarrhea, including fatty or malabsorptive diarrhea, inflammatory diarrhea, and watery diarrhea (the most common type). Fatty or malabsorptive diarrhea is often a consequence of small bowel disease that affects your body’s ability to absorb fats and low pancreatic enzyme levels that make it difficult for your body to digest fats.

woman holding her stomach in pain

Some rare conditions that can cause malabsorption diarrhea are eosinophilic gastroenteritis, tropical sprue, and Whipple’s disease. Watery diarrhea can have many causes, such as carbohydrate malabsorption and medications such as antacids, antibiotics, and NSAIDs.
Chronic bloody diarrhea may result from inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Less common causes of chronic bloody diarrhea include colon cancer or polyps, infections, ischemia of the gut, and radiation therapy.

Stomach Bug Causes

The adenovirus, norovirus, or rotavirus often cause stomach flu. You can get a stomach virus from eating or drinking contaminated foods or liquids, sharing utensils with someone with a stomach virus, or touching your mouth after contacting a contaminated surface.
The stomach flu and food poisoning cause similar symptoms, but each illness has a different timeline of when symptoms develop, and the symptoms will last for different amounts of time.

Food Poisoning Causes

Bacteria, parasites, or viruses can cause food poisoning. The five most common foodborne germs are campylobacter, clostridium perfringens, norovirus, salmonella, and staphylococcus (staph). Food poisoning is caused by cross-contamination (organisms from raw or undercooked foods pass to other foods) or by eating raw or undercooked foods like dairy, meat, or sauces.

Food poisoning symptoms usually start within six hours of exposure and last only up to one day. Stomach virus symptoms start 12 to 48 hours after exposure and last between one and three days.

Chronic Vomiting Causes

Severe or persistent vomiting that lasts for hours or days can cause dehydration, so it is vital to understand the reasons behind persistent vomiting.
Causes of persistent vomiting include:

  • Appendicitis
  • Cancer treatment
  • Food allergies
  • Food poisoning
  • Gastroparesis
  • Ingestion of a poisonous substance
  • Intestinal blockage
  • Pregnancy
  • Rotavirus or other severe virus

Dealing with the Symptoms: Remedies and Treatments

This section will focus on vomiting remedies, how to stop diarrhea, food poisoning treatment, dealing with dehydration from vomiting and diarrhea, and treating gastrointestinal infections.

Vomiting Remedies

There are many home remedies to alleviate vomiting. Foods such as ginger, lemon, and peppermint and spices such as cinnamon, cumin extract, and fennel powder can help relieve nausea and vomiting.

Staying hydrated and taking vitamin B6 can also help. You may benefit from acupressure or acupuncture, deep breathing, and muscle relaxation exercises.

Dietary changes that can help include avoiding foods high in carbohydrates and fats, consuming smaller portions, and sticking to a bland or protein-rich diet. Light exercises, such as yoga, may also reduce vomiting. You can take over-the-counter anti-nausea medications such as antihistamines or bismuth subsalicylate if home remedies are insufficient.

medicine tablets and pills

Antihistamines like dimenhydrinate (Dramamine) and meclizine (Bonine) work well for nausea and vomiting caused by motion sickness. Bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol and Kaopectate) can treat nausea and vomiting from a stomach virus.

How to Stop Diarrhea

Tips for managing diarrhea include drinking plenty of non-alcoholic and caffeine-free liquids to avoid dehydration, eating bland foods, and taking probiotics. You should avoid dairy, fatty foods, heavily seasoned foods, and high-fiber foods. Over-the-counter diarrhea medication can also help relieve this issue.

Imodium A-D (loperamide) slows down your intestines to reduce bowel movements, and this medication may also help you recover about a day sooner than you would without it. Pepto-Bismol (bismuth subsalicylate) lowers the amount of fluid that enters your bowel, reduces intestinal swelling, and it may even kill the organisms causing your diarrhea.

Kaopectate (bismuth subsalicylate) has the same active ingredient as Pepto-Bismol but is available in more flavors than Pepto-Bismol. Probiotics may assist with food digestion, immune support, and vitamin production. Most diarrhea medications are safe for adults and children aged 12, but Kaopectate and Pepto-Bismol are unsafe for babies and children.

Food Poisoning Treatment

You can take steps to manage food poisoning at home. One of the most important things you can do is to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids. Eating small portions of bland foods will help you avoid worsening symptoms.

You should seek professional medical help for food poisoning if you are pregnant or breastfeeding if your child has food poisoning and cannot keep liquids down, or if you or your child experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Bloody diarrhea
  • Bloody vomit
  • Blurred vision
  • Confusion
  • Dark urine
  • Delirium
  • Dizziness
  • Lack of urine
  • Lightheadedness
  • Persistent, high fever (over 102 degrees Fahrenheit)
man sitting on a bench in the park and holding his head

Dehydration from Vomiting and Diarrhea

Signs of dehydration include:

  • Dark urine
  • Dry mouth
  • Less frequent urination
  • Lightheadedness
  • Strong-smelling urine
  • Thirst
  • Tiredness

An oral rehydration solution (ORS) is vital for treating dehydration from diarrhea and vomiting. An ORS contains the electrolytes potassium and sodium, sugar, and water. These ingredients increase the amount of fluid absorbed in your GI tract. ORSs are safe for adults and children.

Gastrointestinal Infection Treatment

Standard treatments and medications for gastrointestinal infections include:

  • Replacing lost electrolytes and fluids
  • Taking over-the-counter medicines like Imodium A-D, Kaeopectate, and Pepto-Bismol if you do not have a bacterial or parasitic infection
  • Taking probiotics

Probiotics can help restore your gut health by balancing levels of healthy bacteria and boosting your immune system.

Special Considerations: Pediatric and Traveler’s Gastrointestinal Health

This section will examine pediatric gastroenteritis and the prevention and treatment of traveler’s diarrhea.

Pediatric Gastroenteritis

The most common signs and symptoms of gastroenteritis in children are diarrhea and vomiting. Gastroenteritis caused by an infection can also cause a fever. Regardless of the cause, pediatric gastroenteritis also commonly causes abdominal pain. Bed rest and hydration are the main ways to treat gastroenteritis in children. However, antibiotics, anti-diarrhea medication, and anti-vomiting medicines may help.

happy girl running in a field

Traveler’s Diarrhea: Prevention and Treatment

Traveler’s diarrhea is a prevalent condition brought on by ingesting drinks or foods that contain bacteria, parasites, or viruses. Bacterial infections are the most common cause, with parasitic and viral infections being less common causes of traveler’s diarrhea.

You can avoid getting traveler’s diarrhea by using only boiled or disinfected water to drink, brush your teeth, make coffee or tea, or wash cooking surfaces, dishes, food utensils, fruits, vegetables, your face, or your hands. Do not add ice to your drinks or consume drinks that are not bottled or sealed. Avoid eating unpasteurized dairy products, raw fruits, meats, salad greens, and vegetables.

Do not eat shellfish or fish caught in a tropical reef. You should bring over-the-counter medications like Pepto Bismol if you get traveler’s diarrhea while away from home. If you get traveler’s diarrhea while abroad, you should eat a bland diet of foods that your body is familiar with and that are not likely to be contaminated.

Living with Digestive System Disorders: Prevention and Management

In this section, we will discuss gastroenteritis prevention, dietary advice for vomiting and diarrhea, and the role of probiotics in gastrointestinal health.

Gastroenteritis Prevention

Gastroenteritis can be severe, but there are preventive measures to reduce the risk of gastroenteritis. Avoiding food and water that may be contaminated, keeping your hands away from your mouth, and washing your hands more often can prevent you from contracting gastroenteritis.

Dietary Advice for Vomiting and Diarrhea

Food choices that can help manage symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea include clear liquids and the BRAT diet (bananas, rice, apple sauce, and toast). Foods to avoid during these episodes include dairy products, fried foods, and spicy foods. Although healthy, you should not eat raw vegetables and salads when dealing with diarrhea and vomiting.


Role of Probiotics for Gastrointestinal Health

Probiotics can help support digestive health by breaking down fiber, which boosts nutrient intake and produces critical fatty acids and vitamins. You can turn to probiotic-rich foods and supplements if you want more probiotics. Probiotic-rich foods include yogurt, sauerkraut, and cheese. Probiotic supplements can come in capsules or pills, liquids, or powders.


It is essential to understand gastrointestinal disorders so you can avoid serious illness by effectively treating your condition. Many of the symptoms of gastrointestinal disorders will go away on their own with time, but they can also cause serious complications like severe dehydration.

If you experience severe symptoms or symptoms that do not resolve with time, seek professional help. Gastrointestinal disorders can be prevented and managed through diet and lifestyle changes. These beneficial lifestyle adjustments can help reduce symptoms and the impact of the illness on your daily life.

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