Digestive Health

Updated 03 May 2017

Preventing gastroenteritis

There are a few things you can do to lower your chances of contracting gastroenteritis or spreading it to others.


The microorganisms that cause gastroenteritis are many and varied, with new strains emerging from year to year. This makes it difficult to inoculate people against gastroenteritis.

Two new vaccines

As the single leading cause of fatal diarrhoea in children, a vaccine called Rotashield was developed to combat the Rotavirus. It has since been withdrawn from use in countries using the vaccine because of an increased risk of intussusception. 

Two new vaccines (Rotarix and RotaTeq) have subsequently been developed and tested extensively. With excellent safety records, the Rotavirus vaccine is available at all South Africa EPI clinics and is given at six and 14 weeks.

Since the introduction of the Rotavirus vaccine, there has been a tremendous drop in the numbers of cases of Rotavirus diarrhoea in South Africa. This vaccine is the best way to prevent severe diarrhoea associated with Rotavirus.

It is not possible to physically isolate yourself sufficiently to prevent any contact with the micro-organisms that cause gastroenteritis. However, if you have a healthy immune system, you may develop immunity to many of them after a first exposure without even getting serious symptoms.

While some micro-organisms will cause gastroenteritis during a first infection, subsequent infections will not cause symptoms.

Infection through contact with infected people can be prevented to some extent by avoiding contact with the bodily fluids of infected people.

Other preventive measures include:

- Frequently cleaning and disinfecting high-risk surfaces such as food preparation areas and toddlers’ toys

- Encouraging those with symptoms of gastroenteritis to practise good hygiene (e.g. hand washing after using the toilet)

- Washing hands after going to the bathroom or changing nappies, working with soil, or playing with pets

- Washing your hands before preparing food, between handling raw and ready to eat foods, and before eating

Risks of environmental contamination due to poor living conditions or bad sanitation can be reduced by:

- Breast-feeding babies, which avoids the risks of contaminated water and unsterile bottles and teats

- Practising good food storage techniques. (Raw foods such as meat, poultry, fish, and eggs must be eaten within a limited time period if it is not possible to store these foods at a cool temperature. [Cool temperatures prevent bacterial growth.] These foods should be stored separately so as not to contaminate other foodstuffs.)

- Thoroughly cooking all food to kill any bacteria, and allowing microwaved food to stand for the specified period after cooking

- Peeling fruit and vegetables and thoroughly washing those that cannot be peeled when there is a risk of contamination from human or animal manure

- Reheating previously cooked food to at least 75° Centigrade

- Boiling drinking water for a few minutes if water supplies are not reliably filtered and chlorinated

- Keeping insects and animals away from food preparation areas

It’s important to note that in many impoverished areas, the only way to really help reduce incidence of gastroenteritis and other diseases of poverty is to implement overall improvements in the standard of living, sanitation and other environmental factors.

Read more: 

Symptoms of gastroenteritis

Treating gastroenteritis

Diagnosing gastroenteritis

Reviewed by Dr Karin Richter, MMed Path (Medical Virology), FC Path(SA) Viro, Dip HIV Man (SA), Dip Obst (SA), MBChB , Clinical Virologist, Senior Lecturer, Department of Medical Virology, University of Pretoria, Faculty of Health Sciences, and Consultant Pathologist, Tshwane Academic Division, National Health Laboratory Services (NHLS) 

Previously reviewed by Dr EftyhiaVardas BSc (Hons), MBBCh, DTM&H, DPH, FC Path (Virol), MMed (Virol), Clinical Virologist, Director HIV AIDS Vaccine Division.  


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