Viral gastroenteritis is sometimes called the "stomach flu." It refers to swelling or inflammation of the stomach and intestines from a virus. The infection can lead to diarrhea and vomiting.
Gastroenteritis can affect one person or a group of people who all ate the same food or drank the same water. The germs may get into the food you eat (called contamination) in different ways.
Viral gastroenteritis is a leading cause of severe diarrhea in both adults and children. Many types of viruses can cause gastroenteritis. The most common ones are:
Symptoms most often appear within 4 to 48 hours after contact with the contaminated food or water, and include:
Other symptoms may include:
The health care provider will look for signs of dehydration, including:
Tests that examine stool samples may be used to identify which virus is causing the sickness. This is usually not needed for viral gastroenteritis. A stool culture may be done to find out whether bacteria are causing the problem.
The goal of treatment is to prevent dehydration by making sure the body has enough water and fluids. Fluids and electrolytes (salt and minerals) that are lost through diarrhea or vomiting must be replaced by drinking extra fluids. Even if you are able to eat, you should still drink extra fluids between meals.
Food may be offered often in small amounts. Suggested foods include:
People with diarrhea who are unable to drink fluids because of nausea may need intravenous (directly into a vein) fluids. This is especially true in small children.
Antibiotics do not work for viruses.
Drugs to slow down the amount of diarrhea (anti-diarrheal medications) should not be given without first talking with your health care provider. DO NOT give these anti-diarrheal medications to children unless directed to do so by a health care provider.
People taking water pills (diuretics) who develop diarrhea may be told by their health care provider to stop taking the diuretic during the acute episode. However, DO NOT stop taking any prescription medicine without first talking to your health care provider.
The risk of dehydration is greatest in infants and young children, so parents should closely monitor the number of wet diapers changed per day when their child is sick.
You can buy medicines at the drugstore that can help stop or slow diarrhea.
The illness usually runs its course in a few days without treatment.
Children may become severely ill from dehydration caused by diarrhea.
People with the highest risk for severe gastroenteritis include young children, the elderly, and people who have a suppressed immune system.
Rotavirus causes severe gastroenteritis in infants and young children. Severe dehydration and death can occur in this age group.
Call your health care provider if diarrhea lasts for more than several days or if dehydration occurs. You should also contact your health care provider if you or your child has these symptoms:
Most viruses and bacteria are passed from person to person by unwashed hands. The best way to prevent viral gastroenteritis is to handle food properly and wash your hands thoroughly after using the toilet.
Vaccination to prevent severe rotavirus infection is recommended for infants starting at age 2 months.
Rotavirus infection; Norwalk virus; Gastroenteritis - viral; Stomach flu
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Updated by: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Divison of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington; and George F. Longstreth, MD, Department of Gastroenterology, Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program, San Diego, CA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.
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