Viral gastroenteritis (stomach flu) is an intestinal infection which is manifested with nausea or vomiting, watery diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and sometimes fever. It is contagious in contact with an infected person or by ingesting contaminated food or water. Usually healthy adults people recover without complications, but for infants, older adults and people with compromised immune systems, viral gastroenteritis can be fatal.
Prevention is essential because there is no effective treatment for viral gastroenteritis. The best protection is to wash hands frequently and thoroughly.
It is important to note that gastroenteritis is not the same as influenza. Real flu (influenza) affects only the respiratory system whereas gastroenteritis attacks the intestines, causing symptoms, such as:
- Stomach cramps and pain
- Watery and non bloody diarrhea (bloody diarrhea usually means you have a different, more severe infection)
- Nausea, vomiting or both
- Occasional muscle aches or headache
- Low-grade fever
Viral gastroenteritis symptoms may appear within one to three days after the infection is caught and can range from mild to severe. Symptoms usually last just a day or two, but may stay on as long as 10 days.
It is easy to confuse viral diarrhea with diarrhea caused by bacteria, such as clostridium difficile, salmonella and E. coli, or parasites, such as giardia because the symptoms are similar.
Gastroenteritis is caught by eating or drinking contaminated food and water, or by sharing utensils, towels or food with someone who is infected.
The viruses which can cause gastroenteritis include noroviruses and rotaviruses.
Drinking contaminated water is a cause of viral diarrhea, but also the virus is passed on through contact with someone with the virus.
People of every age all over the world are affected by Gastroenteritis. People who may be more susceptible to gastroenteritis include:
- Young children.
- Older adults.
- Schoolchildren, churchgoers or dormitory residents.
- Anyone with a weakened immune system.
Dehydration, loss of water and essential salts and minerals tend to be the main complications of viral gastroenteritis. For healthy people who drink enough to replace fluids they lose from vomiting and diarrhea, dehydration shouldn't be a problem.
Regarding infants, older adults and people with suppressed immune systems, they may become severely dehydrated when they lose more fluids than they can replace. Hospitalization might be needed.
The best way to prevent the spread of intestinal infections is to follow these precautions:
- Wash the hands thoroughly and frequently.
- Get the child vaccinated.
- Use separate personal items around the home.
- Keep the distance from people.
- Disinfect hard surfaces.
- Check out the child care center.
In case you travel to other countries, you can become sick from contaminated food or water. Follow these tips to reduce the risk:
- Avoid raw food — including peeled fruits, raw vegetables and salads — that has been touched by human hands.
- Avoid undercooked meat and fish.
- Drink only well-sealed bottled or carbonated water.
- Avoid ice cubes, because they may be made from contaminated water.
- Use bottled water to brush the teeth.