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Viral gastroenteritis is an inflammation and irritation of your intestines caused by one of a number of viruses, most commonly norovirus or rotavirus. This illness is also known as the stomach flu.
This highly contagious illness spreads through close contact with people who have the virus or through contaminated food or water.
It can easily spread in close quarters, such as:
- childcare facilities
- nursing homes
- cruise ships
This article will help you understand more about viral gastroenteritis including symptoms, causes, treatment, and prevention.
Symptoms of gastroenteritis usually begin shortly after infection. For example, symptoms caused by norovirus typically develop within
Symptoms can include:
- loose, watery diarrhea more than 3 times per day
- fever or chills
- nausea and vomiting
- headache, muscle aches, or joint aches
- sweating or clammy skin
- abdominal cramps and pain
- loss of appetite
Diarrhea caused by viral gastroenteritis isn’t usually bloody. Blood in your stool could be a sign of a more severe infection.
You should seek emergency medical treatment if:
- diarrhea has lasted for 2 days or more without getting less frequent
- your infant develops diarrhea
- blood is present in your diarrhea
- you show or see signs of dehydration, such as dry lips or dizziness
In addition to the above symptoms, you should seek emergency attention for your child if they have the appearance of sunken eyes or if they aren’t making tears when they cry.
Viral gastroenteritis is caused by a number of different viruses. It’s easy for these viruses to spread in group situations. Some of the ways the virus is transmitted include:
- eating contaminated food or drinking contaminated water
- being in close contact with someone who has the virus
- sharing utensils or other items with someone who has the virus
- touching contaminated surfaces
- not washing hands properly, especially food handlers
Viral gastroenteritis affects people of all ages all over the world. But some factors can increase the risk of contracting viral gastroenteritis. People who are at a higher risk include:
- children under the age of 5
- older adults, especially those who live in nursing homes or assisted living facilities
- people with a compromised or weakened immune system
- those who are often in group settings, such as schools, dormitories, day care, religious gatherings, and other indoor group settings
Other factors that may increase the risk of becoming ill with viral gastroenteritis include:
- being malnourished, especially low levels of
vitamin A or zinc
- recent travel to developing countries
- antibiotic or antacid use
- anal intercourse
Several different types of viruses can cause viral gastroenteritis. The most common include:
Let’s look at each of these viruses in more detail.
Norovirus is highly contagious and can affect anyone at any age. It spreads through contaminated food, water, and surfaces, or by people who have the virus. Norovirus is common in crowded spaces.
According to the
Rotavirus commonly affects infants and young children. Those who contract it can then pass the virus to other children and adults. It’s usually contracted and transmitted via the mouth.
Symptoms typically appear within
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 types of illness, including gastroenteritis. The adenovirus can also cause common cold-like symptoms, bronchitis, pneumonia, and pink eye (conjunctivitis).
Children in daycare, especially those
Adenovirus is passed 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:
Most children will feel better within a few days of experiencing adenovirus symptoms. However, symptoms such as pink eye may last longer than a few days.
Astrovirus is another virus that commonly causes gastroenteritis in children. Symptoms associated with astrovirus include:
The virus most often affects people in late winter and early spring. It’s transmitted through contact with a person who has the virus or via an infected surface or food.
Symptoms usually appear within 2 to 3 days after initial exposure, and the virus will usually go away within 1 to 4 days.
The main complication of viral gastroenteritis is dehydration, which can be quite severe in babies and young children. Viral gastroenteritis accounts for
Other complications of viral gastroenteritis 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 the stool
- confusion or lethargy
- dizziness or feeling like you’re going to faint
- dry mouth
- an inability to produce tears
- no urine for more than 8 hours or urine that is dark yellow or brown
- sunken eyes
- sunken fontanel on an infant’s head
Dehydration that accompanies 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, get immediate medical attention if you or your child have symptoms of dehydration.
Most of the time, your medical history and physical exam are the basis for diagnosis, especially if there’s evidence that the virus is spreading through your community.
Over-the-counter oral rehydration solutions (OHS), such as Pedialyte, can be helpful in mild cases. These solutions are easy on your child’s stomach, and 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 the instructions carefully.
Antibiotics have no effect on viruses. Check with your physician before taking any over-the-counter medications.
Treating diarrhea and vomiting
Your doctor may also prescribe probiotics to replace the healthy bacteria that’s lost during diarrhea or they may prescribe medications to treat severe vomiting.
What to eat and what to avoid
As you start to feel better and reintroduce foods into your diet, it’s best to opt for bland foods, such as:
These foods are easier to digest and less likely to cause further stomach upset. Until you’re feeling better, you may want to avoid some types of foods, such as:
If you have viral gastroenteritis, consider these self-care measures to help ease your symptoms and prevent dehydration:
- 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. These don’t replace the minerals that you’ve lost and can actually increase diarrhea.
- Electrolytes. Children and adults can consume sports drinks to replenish electrolytes. Younger children and infants should use products formulated for children, such as OHS.
- Limit portion sizes. Try to eat food in smaller amounts to help your stomach recover.
- Get lots of rest. Prioritize getting at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night. Don’t exert yourself until you feel that you have your usual level of energy and strength.
- Medications. 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 relieve the symptoms of viral gastroenteritis.
Heating pad or heat pack
If you have abdominal pain, try applying a low-temperature heating pad or a warm heat pack to your stomach. Cover the heating pad with a cloth and don’t leave it on for more than 15 minutes at a time.
The heat can help relax the muscles in your digestive tract and keep them from spasming.
Brown rice water
Some parents serve rice water to their children. This is the water that remains after boiling brown rice. It’s high in electrolytes and can help with rehydration.
To make rice water:
- Boil 1 cup of rice and 2 cups of water for about 10 minutes until the water becomes cloudy.
- Strain the rice and keep the water.
- Cool the rice water before serving.
Mint may also have anti-nausea properties similar to those of ginger. Sipping a soothing mint tea may help you feel better.
Shop online 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 restore your body’s natural bacterial balance after illness.
Viral gastroenteritis can spread easily. However, there are some steps you can take to lower your risk of contracting the virus or passing 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.
Viral gastroenteritis is an inflammation and irritation of your intestines caused by one of several types of viruses.
Vomiting and diarrhea are among the most common symptoms. You can get viral gastroenteritis from other people or through contaminated foods, drinks, or surfaces.
Generally, viral gastroenteritis symptoms come on suddenly and pass quickly. If diarrhea lasts longer than 48 hours, be sure to follow up with your doctor.
It’s also a good idea to get medical attention if your infant or young child develops diarrhea because it can lead to serious complications due to dehydration.