Gastroenteritis or the stomach flu
What is Gastroenteritis?
Viral gastroenteritis is an intestinal infection caused by several viruses. Viral gastroenteritis is highly contagious and causes millions of cases of diarrhea each year.
Anyone can get viral gastroenteritis. Most people recover from gastroenteritis without any complications. However, viral gastroenteritis can be serious for people who cannot drink enough fluids to replace what is lost through vomiting and diarrhea, especially infants, young children, the elderly, and people with weak immune systems. Complications from vomiting also can occur, even in healthy people.
Symptoms of Gastroenteritis
The main symptoms of viral gastroenteritis are watery diarrhea and vomiting. Other symptoms of gastroenteritis include headache, fever, chills, and abdominal pain. The symptoms may appear within hours or a few days of infection. They usually last for 1 to 2 days, but may last as long as 10 days.
Causes of Gastroenteritis
The viruses that cause viral gastroenteritis damage the cells in the lining of the small intestine. As a result, fluids leak from the cells into the intestine and produce watery diarrhea. Four types of viruses cause most viral gastroenteritis.
Viral gastroenteritis is often mistakenly called "stomach flu," but it is not caused by the influenza virus and it does not infect the stomach.
Transmission of Gastroenteritis
Viral gastroenteritis is highly contagious. The viruses are often transmitted on unwashed hands. People can get the viruses through close contact with infected individuals, such as sharing their food, drink, or eating utensils, or by eating food or drinking beverages that are contaminated with the virus. People who no longer have symptoms may still be contagious, since the virus can be found in the stool for up to 2 weeks after they recover from their illness. Also, people can become infected without having symptoms, and they can still spread the infection.
Outbreaks of viral gastroenteritis can occur in child care settings, schools, nursing homes, cruise ships, camps, dormitories, restaurants, and other places where people gather in groups. If you suspect that you were exposed to a virus in one of these settings, you may want to contact your local health department, which tracks outbreaks.
Diagnosis of Gastroenteritis
If you think you have viral gastroenteritis, you may want to see your doctor, although many people don't bother. Doctors generally diagnose viral gastroenteritis based on the symptoms and a physical examination. Your doctor may ask for a stool sample to test for rotavirus or to rule out bacteria or parasites as the cause of your symptoms. No routine tests are currently available for the other types of viruses.
Treatment of Gastroenteritis
Most cases of viral gastroenteritis resolve over time without specific treatment. Antibiotics are not effective against viral infections. The primary goal of treated gastroenteritis is to reduce the symptoms. Prompt treatment may be needed to prevent dehydration.
Your body needs fluids to function. Dehydration is the loss of fluids from the body. Important salts or minerals, known as electrolytes, can also be lost with the fluids. Dehydration can be caused by diarrhea, vomiting, excessive urination, or excessive sweating, or by not drinking enough fluids because of nausea, difficulty swallowing, or loss of appetite.
In viral gastroenteritis, the combination of diarrhea and vomiting can cause dehydration. The symptoms of dehydration are
If you notice any of these symptoms, you should talk to your doctor. Mild dehydration can be treated by drinking liquids. Severe dehydration may require intravenous fluids and hospitalization. Untreated severe dehydration can be life threatening.
Children present special concerns. Because of their smaller body size, infants and children are at greater risk of dehydration from diarrhea and vomiting. Oral rehydration solutions such as Pedialyte can replace lost fluids, minerals, and salts.
You can take several steps to help relieve the symptoms of viral gastroenteritis.
Prevention of Gastroenteritis
Prevention is the only way to avoid viral gastroenteritis. There is no vaccine available. You can avoid viral gastroenteritis by:
Points to Remember
Reprinted from NIH Publication No. 03-5103. This article was originally printed in the April 2003.
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