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Gastroenteritis is a major public health problem, accounting for up to 20% of all acute care outpatient visits to hospitals. Most children who come to the emergency department because of vomiting and/or diarrhea have a self-limited viral disorder. Nevertheless, loss of water and electrolytes can lead to clinical dehydration and may result in hypovolemic shock or life-threatening electrolyte disturbances.


The evaluation of the child’s hydration status is the cornerstone to clinical management, regardless of whether the presenting complaint is vomiting or diarrhea (Table 73-1). Viral, bacterial, and other infectious organisms can cause gastroenteritis, and spread most commonly occurs by the fecal-to-oral route. Viral pathogens cause disease by invading tissue and altering the intestine’s ability to absorb water and electrolytes. Bacterial pathogens cause diarrhea by producing enterotoxins and cytotoxins and by invading the intestine’s mucosal absorptive surface. Dysentery occurs when bacteria invade the mucosa of the terminal ileum and colon, producing diarrhea with blood, mucus, or pus. Table 73-2 lists common infectious agents, clinical features, and treatments of diarrhea in children. Infants are at greater risk for rapid dehydration and hypoglycemia, as they are with chronic illnesses, high-risk social situations, or malnutrition.

Table 73-1

Clinical Dehydration Score

Table 73-2

Clinical Features and Treatment of Bacterial Gastroenteritis

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