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Understanding Gastrointestinal Illnesses

Man holds his stomach in pain

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Everything you eat goes through your digestive system.

Food goes in your mouth, into your stomach.

The parts of your food that your body doesn’t need go out of your body into the toilet (this is your body’s waste).

In your digestive system your body:

Breaks down food into different parts that keep you healthy

Changes food into energy your body can use

Gets rid of things it does not need (waste)

Any illness that affects your digestive system is called a gastrointestinal illness.

Gastrointestinal illnesses (or digestive problems) can be:

  • Stomachaches
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Other illnesses that affect your intestines, stomach, or colon

Anyone can get digestive problems, but you are at extra risk if you:

Have a history of food allergies or food intolerances

Regularly take aspirin or other pain relievers

Drink a lot of alcohol


  • You can also get digestive problems from being upset or feeling distressed.

Stomach flu and food poisoning are common gastrointestinal illnesses.

Some illnesses, like flu, can be contagious.

  • Contagious means that someone who is sick can give the sickness to other people.

These illnesses usually go away in a few days.

You may have a gastrointestinal illness if:

You have diarrhea (watery and loose bowel movements)

You can learn more about diarrhea on the DDS Safety Net.

You may also have a gastrointestinal illness if:

Your stomach hurts or burns

You always feel full

You feel like you need to throw up or actually throw up

You begin to lose or gain weight

You always feel tired

Call the doctor immediately if you:

Have very bad pain in your stomach

Throw up your food right after eating

See blood when you go to the bathroom or throw up

Feel very warm (have a high fever)

Have diarrhea that lasts longer than 3 – 5 days

Tell the doctor about:

What you are feeling in your body (your symptoms)

What food you ate

What medicine you took

Any people around you who are sick

Any family members that have digestive problems

Your doctor may test to see if you have a gastrointestinal illness. To test you your doctor might :

Take a sample of your bowel movements

Take a sample of your blood

Take x-rays to look inside your body

Look inside your intestines with a small camera (called a colonoscopy)

Your doctor will tell you what to do to get better.

The doctor may give you medicine.

  • Tell the doctor what medicines you are already taking before you start any new medicines.

Make sure you understand all of the doctor’s instructions before you leave the doctor’s office.

If your stomach hurts, there are other things you can do to help yourself feel better.

Drink lots of water (especially if you have diarrhea).

Drink soup to give your body the nutrients it needs.

Eat soft, plain food like toast, bananas, rice, or eggs.

What can I do to prevent gastrointestinal illnesses?

Wash your hands often, especially:

  • Before cooking
  • Before eating

After using the bathroom

Don’t share hand towels.

Make sure you eat meat or fish that is well-cooked.

Get regular check-ups with your doctor.

You can also prevent illnesses by living a healthy lifestyle.

Eat and drink sensibly.

  • Eat a balanced diet with foods that are high in fiber: vegetables, beans, and whole grain bread.
  • Drink lots of liquids.

Exercise every day.

Set realistic goals for yourself.

Take time for relaxation.

Where can I learn more about digestive problems and gastrointestinal illness?

Mayo Clinic: Digestive Symptoms

WebMD: Digestive Disorders Health Center

Revolution Health: Digestive Health

You can also use these great resources.

Ask your doctor.

Check out these DDS Safety Net presentations:

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FPGastrointestinalIllness.pdf 2.86 MB
Last updated on Thu, 06/10/2010 - 15:18