It probably won’t comfort sufferers to know that “stomach flu” isn’t influenza at all, but an intestinal infection caused by a virus. Gastroenteritis refers to the resulting inflammation of the stomach and intestines.
The symptoms of viral gastroenteritis — watery diarrhea, cramping, nausea, vomiting and sometimes fever — are pretty miserable and share some similarities with the flu. But viral gastroenteritis often passes on its own within a few days. If you have it, the best thing you can do is to re-hydrate by drinking plenty of fluids, keeping your hands clean and minimizing contact with others, lest you infect them.
What causes viral gastroenteritis?
A variety of viruses can cause your intestines to become inflamed. Rotavirus, norovirus, adenovirus and astrovirus all cause gastroenteritis, all with similar symptoms, but with differing gestation periods and durations.
The National Institutes of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases says viral gastroenteritis spreads through contact with an infected person’s stool or vomit. The virus may also live for months on changing tables, countertops and other surfaces. Viruses can also spread through water, such as when people swim together or use water or ice that’s contaminated.
Prevention and treatment
Health officials advise infected people to avoid spreading viruses by:
- Washing their hands thoroughly after using the bathroom
- Not preparing food or drinks for others
- Avoiding shaking hands and touching others
- Thoroughly cleaning surfaces that may harbor the virus
In adults, most cases will resolve on their own without medical treatment, but sufferers should be mindful of the need to replace fluids and electrolytes lost through vomiting and diarrhea. Drink water, fruit juices, sports drinks or broths throughout the day to stay hydrated. Some symptoms may be eased with such over-the-counter medications as Kaopectate, Imodium or Pepto Bismol.
Infants and young children bear close watching. Replace their fluids with oral hydration solutions like Pedialyte, Naturalyte, Infalyte, and CeraLyte, which contain glucose and electrolytes. Consult your health care provider if anything seems out of the ordinary.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that a pair of rotavirus vaccines are very effective at preventing rotavirus in babies. It says infants should be given doses of either RotaTeq (RV5) or Rotarix (RV1). Ask your doctor or pediatrician about rotavirus disease and the recommended vaccine schedule for children.
Just as viral gastroenteritis is not “stomach flu,” neither is food poisoning, though it is marked by similar symptoms. Bacteria may be passed through contaminated food and infect large numbers of people who eat it. If you’re wondering what you may have, see “Is it the flu? Or stomach bug?”
The NIDDK explains in detail the causes, symptoms and treatments for viral gastroenteritis.
You should consult a health care provider if your symptoms are troubling, such as tarry stools or signs of dehydration, which includes lightheadedness, dry mouth, little urine and sunken eyes. You can find a Providence provider near you in our online directory.
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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.