Viral gastroenteritis is an inflammation of your stomach and intestines caused by one of any number of viruses. Also known as the stomach flu, viral gastroenteritis affects people throughout the world. This highly contagious illness spreads through close contact with people who are infected or through contaminated food or water. It can easily spread in close quarters, such as:
- child care facilities
- nursing homes
- cruise ships
Different viruses can cause the illness, each with their own peak season. The most common viruses include norovirus and rotavirus.
There are steps you can take to lower your chances of contracting the viruses that cause viral gastroenteritis. These include frequent hand-washing and avoiding contaminated water and food products.
Most people make a full recovery in two or three days, with no lasting side effects.
Viral gastroenteritis is caused by a number of different viruses. People at higher risk are:
- children under age 5
- older adults, especially if they live in nursing homes
- children and adults with compromised immune systems
It’s easy for this virus to spread in group situations. Some of the ways the virus is transmitted include:
- improper hand-washing, especially by food handlers
- water contaminated by sewage
- consuming raw or undercooked shellfish from contaminated waters
Learn more about the individual viruses that can cause the condition.
Norovirus is highly contagious and can affect anyone at any age. It’s spread through contaminated food, water, and surfaces, or by people who have the virus. Norovirus is common in crowded spaces.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most people with norovirus feel better within one to three days of experiencing symptoms.
Rotavirus commonly affects infants and young children. They can then spread the infection to other children and adults. It’s usually contracted and spread through the mouth.
Symptoms typically appear within two days of infection and include:
According to the CDC, this virus is most common between the months of December and June.
A rotavirus vaccine was approved for infants in 2006. Early vaccination is recommended to prevent severe rotavirus illnesses in infants and small children.
The adenovirus affects people of all ages. It can cause several conditions, including gastroenteritis. Adenovirus is contracted through the air via sneezing and coughing, by touching contaminated objects, or by touching the hands of someone with the virus. Symptoms associated with adenovirus include:
Children in day care, especially those ages 6 months to 2 years, are more likely to get adenovirus. Most children will feel better within a few days of experiencing adenovirus symptoms. However, symptoms such as pink eye may take longer to go away.
Astrovirus is another virus that commonly causes gastroenteritis in children. Symptoms associated with astrovirus include:
The virus usually affects people in late winter and early spring. It’s passed through contact with a person who has the virus or an infected surface or food.
Symptoms usually appear within two to three days after initial exposure and the virus will usually go away within two to three days.
Symptoms of gastroenteritis usually begin one or two days after infection and include:
- nausea and vomiting
- headache, muscle aches, or joint aches
- fever or chills
- sweating or clammy skin
- abdominal cramps and pain
- loss of appetite
These symptoms can last anywhere from 1 to 10 days.
You should seek emergency medical treatment if:
- diarrhea has lasted for three days or more without getting less frequent
- blood is present in your diarrhea
- you show or see signs of dehydration, such as dry lips or dizziness
Sometimes other factors can cause symptoms that closely resemble viral gastroenteritis. These causes include:
- Food intolerance. Examples of common food intolerances include lactose, fructose, and artificial sweeteners.
- Digestive disorders. These include inflammatory diseases such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, or celiac disease.
- Certain medications. Antibiotics or antacids with magnesium can cause similar symptoms to the stomach flu.
If your symptoms don’t get better in two to three days, you should see your doctor.
The main complication of viral gastroenteritis is dehydration, which can be quite severe in babies and young children. Other complications include:
Dehydration can be life-threatening. Call your doctor if you or your child have these symptoms:
- diarrhea lasting more than a few days
- blood in your stool
- confusion or lethargy
- feeling faint or dizzy
- dry mouth
- an inability to produce tears
- no urine for more than eight hours or urine that is dark yellow or brown
- sunken eyes
- sunken fontanel on an infant’s head
The dehydration that can accompany viral gastroenteritis can lead to several complications of its own. These include:
- brain swelling
- hypovolemic shock, a condition that occurs when your body doesn’t have enough fluid or blood
- kidney failure
To prevent complications, you should seek immediate medical attention if you or your child have symptoms of dehydration.
Most of the time, a medical history and physical exam is the basis for diagnosis, especially if there’s evidence that the virus is spreading through your community. Your doctor may also order a stool sample to test for the type of virus or to find out if your illness is caused by a parasitic or bacterial infection.
Over-the-counter oral rehydration solutions (OHS), such as Pedialyte, can be helpful in mild cases. OHS are made to be easy on your child’s stomach, and they contain a balanced mixture of water and salts to replenish essential fluids and electrolytes. These solutions are available at local pharmacies and don’t require a prescription. However, you should follow instructions carefully.
Shop for oral electrolyte products.
Antibiotics have no effect on viruses. Check with your physician before taking any over-the-counter medications.
What to eat and what to avoid
As you start to feel better and reintroduce foods into your diet, it’s usually best to opt for bland foods. These foods include:
These foods are easier to digest and less likely to cause further stomach upset. Until you’re feeling better, you may want to avoid certain items, such as:
If you have viral gastroenteritis, there are some self-care steps you can take.
- Drink extra fluids with and between meals. If you have difficulty, try drinking very small amounts of water or sucking on ice chips.
- Avoid fruit juices as these do not replace minerals and can actually increase diarrhea.
- Children and adults can use sports drinks to replenish electrolytes. Younger children and infants should use products formulated for children, such as OHS.
- Eat food in small amounts and let your stomach recover.
- Get lots of rest. You may feel tired or weak.
- Check with your doctor before taking medications or giving them to children. Never give aspirin to children or teenagers with a viral illness. This can cause Reye’s syndrome, a potentially life-threatening condition.
In addition to rehydrating and resting, there are some natural and home remedies that may help you feel relief from viral gastroenteritis.
Heating pad or heat pack
Try applying a low-temperature heating pad or a warm heat pack on your stomach to ease cramping. Cover the heating pad with a cloth and don’t leave it on for more than 15 minutes at a time.
Shop for heating pads.
Shop for heat packs.
Some parents serve rice water to their child. This is the water that remains after boiling brown rice. It’s high in electrolytes and can help to rehydrate much like an OHS can. Cool the rice water before serving.
Shop for ginger ale.
Shop for ginger tea.
Mint may also have anti-nausea properties similar to those of ginger. Sipping a soothing mint tea may help you feel better.
Shop for mint tea.
Yogurt or kefir
Although dairy products should be avoided when you have your most acute symptoms, eating unflavored yogurt with live active cultures or drinking kefir may help to restore your body’s natural bacterial balance after illness.
Shop for plain yogurt.
Shop for kefir.
Viral gastroenteritis generally resolves without medical treatment within two or three days. Most people fully recover with no lasting side effects.
Viral gastroenteritis is easily spread. There are some things you can do to lower your chances of contracting the virus or spreading it to others.
- Wash your hands often, especially after using the bathroom and before food preparation. If necessary, use hand sanitizer until you can access soap and water.
- Don’t share kitchen utensils, plates, or towels if someone in your household is sick.
- Don’t eat raw or undercooked foods.
- Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly.
- Take special precautions to avoid contaminated water and food when traveling. Avoid ice cubes and use bottled water whenever possible.
- Ask your doctor if you should have your infant vaccinated against rotavirus. There are two vaccines, and they’re generally started around 2 months old.
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