Viral gastroenteritis (stomach flu) – Symptoms and causes

Viral gastroenteritis (stomach flu) -Overview   An intestinal infection marked by watery diarrhea, abdominal cramps, nausea or vomiting, and sometimes fever is known as viral gastroenteritis The most common way to develop viral gastroenteritis often known as stomach flu is through the contact with a person who is infected or by intake of contaminated food […]

Viral gastroenteritis (stomach flu) -Overview


An intestinal infection marked by watery diarrhea, abdominal cramps, nausea or vomiting, and sometimes fever is known as viral gastroenteritis

The most common way to develop viral gastroenteritis often known as stomach flu is through the contact with a person who is infected or by intake of contaminated food or water. If a person is healthy otherwise, then the recovery will be without complications. But for infants, older adults and people having immune systems which is compromised, viral gastroenteritis can be deadly.

Effective treatment for viral gastroenteritis is not available, so prevention is key. In addition, food and water that may be contaminated should be avoided, thorough and frequent hand-washings are best defense.


Although it’s commonly known as stomach flu, gastroenteritis isn’t the same as influenza. Real flu (influenza) affects only your respiratory system — your nose, throat and lungs. Gastroenteritis, on the other hand, intestines are attacked, causing signs and symptoms, such as:

  • Watery, generally non-bloody diarrhea and bloody diarrhea usually means having a different, more severe infection
  • Abdominal cramps and pain
  • Nausea, vomiting or both
  • Occasional muscle aches or headache
  • Low-grade fever

Viral gastroenteritis symptoms depends on the cause that may appear within one to three days after being infected and can range from mild to severe. Symptoms generally lasts for just a day or two, but occasionally they may continue as long as 10 days.

Because the symptoms are familiar, it’s easy to confuse viral diarrhea with diarrhea caused by bacteria, such as Clostridium difficile, salmonella and E. coli, or parasites, such as giardia.

If the person is an adult, call the doctor if:

  • Mot being able to keep liquids down for 24 hours
  • Vomiting for more than two days
  • Vomiting blood
  • Being dehydrated and the signs of dehydration include excessive thirst, dry mouth, deep yellow urine or little or no urine, and severe weakness, dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Noticing blood in bowel movements
  • Having a fever above 104 F (40 C) 

Doctor should contacted right away if the child:

  • Has a fever of 102 F (38.9 C) or higher
  • Seems lethargic or very irritable
  • Is in a lot of discomfort or pain
  • Has bloody diarrhea
  • Seems dehydrated and watch for signs of dehydration in sick infants and children by comparing how much they drink and urinate with how much is normal for them

If having an infant, keep in mind that while spitting up may be an everyday occurrence for baby, vomiting is not. Babies vomit for a various reasons, many of which may need medical attention.

Call the baby’s doctor right away if thw baby:

  • Has been vomiting that lasts more than several hours
  • Hasn’t had a wet diaper in six hours
  • Having bloody stools or severe diarrhea
  • Having a sunken soft spot (fontanel)on the top of his or her head
  • Having a dry mouth or cries without tears
  • Is unusually sleepy, drowsy or unresponsive


Viral gastroenteritis is likely to be contracted when eating or drinking contaminated food or water, or if sharing utensils, towels or food with someone who’s infected.

Gastroenteritis can be caused by a number of viruses, including:

  • Children and adults can both be affected by noroviruses which is the most common cause of foodborne illness worldwide. Families and communities can be swept through noroviruses. It’s especially likely to spread among people who are in confined spaces. In most cases, the virus is picked up from contaminated food or water, although person-to-person transmission also is possible.
  • Around the world, this is the most common cause of viral gastroenteritis in children, who are generally infected when they put their fingers or other objects which are contaminated with the virus into their mouths. In infants and young children the infection is found to be more severe. Adults who are infected with rotavirus may not show symptoms, but can still spread the illness of particular concern in institutional settings because infected adults unknowingly can pass the virus to others. A vaccine is available against viral gastroenteritis in some countries, including the United States, and appears to be effective in the prevention of the infection.

Some shellfish, which are especially raw or undercooked oysters, also can make sick. Although drinking contaminated water is a cause of viral diarrhea, in many cases the virus is passed through the fecal-oral route which is when someone with a virus handles food being eaten without washing his or her hands after using the toilet.

Risk factors

Gastroenteritis occurs worldwide and people of every age, race and background are affected.

People who are more likely to be affected to gastroenteritis include:

  • Young children.Children who are in child care centers or elementary schools may be especially vulnerable as it takes time for a child’s immune system to grow.
  • Older adults.Adult immune systems for adults tend to become less efficient later in life. Older adults who are in nursing homes, in specific, are vulnerable because their immune systems weaken and they live in close contact with others who may pass along germs.
  • Schoolchildren, churchgoers or dormitory residents.An environment for an intestinal infection to get passed can arise anywhere these groups of people come together in close quarters.
  • Anyone with a weakened immune system.If infection resistance is low for example, if the immune system is compromised by HIV/AIDS, chemotherapy or another medical condition then the risk may occur.

A season of each gastrointestinal virus is present when it’s most active. If living in the Northern Hemisphere, for instance, rotavirus or norovirus infections are more likely to be affected between October and April.


Dehydration is the main complication of viral gastroenteritis which is a severe loss of water and essential salts and minerals. If healthy and drinking enough to replace fluids which are lost from vomiting and diarrhea, dehydration shouldn’t be a problem.

Infants, older adults and people with suppressed immune systems may become severely dehydrated when more fluids are lost than that can replace. Lost fluids to be replaced intravenously, hospitalization may be required. Dehydration can be rarely fatal.


Following the below precautions can be the best way to prevent the spread of intestinal infections:

  • Get your child vaccinated.Gastroenteritis vaccine caused by the rotavirus is available in some countries, including the United States. The vaccine appears to be effective in preventing severe symptoms of this illness when it is given to children in the first year of life.
  • Hands should be washed thoroughly and make sure that children do, too. If the children are older, washing their hands should be taught to them, especially after using the toilet. Warm water and soap are best to use and rubbing hands vigorously for at least 20 seconds, remembering to wash around cuticles, beneath fingernails and in the creases of the hands. Then rinse thoroughly. Sanitizing wipes and hand sanitizer should be carried for times when soap and water aren’t available.
  • Separate personal items around the home should be used and sharing eating utensils, drinking glasses and plates should be avoided. Separate towels should be used in the bathroom.
  • Keep distance.Close contact should be avoided with anyone who has the virus, if possible.
  • Disinfect hard surfaces.If viral gastroenteritis is infected to somebody in the house, hard surfaces should be disinfected, such as counters, faucets and doorknobs, with a mixture of 2 cups (0.47 liters) of bleach to 1 gallon (3.8 liters) of water.
  • Check out child care center.The center has separate rooms for changing diapers and preparing or serving food should be ensured. The diaper-changing table in the room should have a sink as well as a sanitary way to dispose of diapers.

Taking precautions when traveling

When traveling in other countries, sickness can come from contaminated food or water. Risk may be reduced by following these tips:

  • Drinking only well-sealed bottled or carbonated water.
  • Ice cubes should be avoided, because they may be made from contaminated water.
  • Bottled water should be used to brush your teeth.
  • Raw food should be avoided including peeled fruits, raw vegetables and salads that have been touched by human hands.
  • Undercooked meat and fish should be avoided.


Gastroenteritis will be diagnosed by the doctor based on symptoms, a physical exam and sometimes on the presence of similar cases in the community. Rotavirus or norovirus can be detected by rapid stool test, but there are no quick tests for other viruses that cause gastroenteritis. In some cases, a stool sample might be asked by the doctor to be submitted to rule out a possible bacterial or parasitic infection.


Specific medical treatment is not available for viral gastroenteritis. Antibiotics aren’t effective against viruses, and using them more can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. Self-care measures are consisted to be initially treated.

Lifestyle and home remedies

To help in being more comfortable and prevent dehydration while recovering, following should be tried:

  • Stomach should be left to settle byceasing to eat solid foods for a few hours.
  • Sucking on ice chips or taking small sips of water should be tried and drinking clear soda, clear broths or non-caffeinated sports drinks should be tried. Plenty of liquid every day, taking small, frequent sips should be drank.
  • Slowly begin to eat bland, easy-to-digest foods, such as soda crackers, toast, gelatin, bananas, rice and chicken. If nausea returns, eating should be stopped.
  • Certain foods and substances should be avoided until felt better which may include dairy products, caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, and fatty or highly seasoned foods.
  • Plenty of rest should be taken as the illness and dehydration may have made weak and tired.
  • Caution should be taken with medications.Many medications should be used, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others), sparingly if at all. Stomach can be more upset with this. Acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) should be used cautiously as it sometimes can cause liver toxicity, especially in children. Aspirin should not be given to children or teens because of the risk of Reye’s syndrome, a rare, but potentially fatal disease. Child’s pediatrician should be consulted before choosing a pain reliever or fever reducer.

For infants and children

When the child has an intestinal infection, the most essential goal is to replace lost fluids and salts. Below suggestions may help:

  • Help the child to rehydrate.Oral rehydration solution should be given to the child, available at pharmacies without a prescription. Doctor should be contacted if having questions about how to use it. Plain water should not be given to the child especially in children with gastroenteritis; water isn’t absorbed well and won’t adequately replace lost electrolytes. Apple juice for rehydration should be avoided as it can make diarrhea worse.
  • Get the child back to a normal diet gradually.Slowly introduce bland, easy-to-digest foods, such as toast, rice, bananas and potatoes.
  • Certain foods should be avoided such as dairy products or sugary foods, such as ice cream, sodas and candy as these can make diarrhea worse.
  • Plenty of rest should be taken by the child.The illness and dehydration may have made the child weak and tired.
  • Over-the-counter anti-diarrhea medications should be avoided to given to children,unless advised by the doctor. They can make it more difficult for the child’s body to eliminate the virus.

If having a sick infant, let the baby’s stomach rest for about 15 to 20 minutes after vomiting or a bout of diarrhea, and then offer small amounts of liquid. If breast-feeding, let the baby nurse do it. If the baby is bottle-fed, a small amount of an oral rehydration solution or regular formula should be offered. Baby’s already-prepared formula should not be diluted.

Preparing for appointment

If a doctor is required to be consulted, health care provider is likely to be seen first. If there are questions about the diagnosis, an infectious disease specialist might be referred by the doctor.

A list of questions should be prepared which will help in making the most of the time with the doctor. Some questions that might be asked to the doctor include:

  • Likely cause of the symptoms and other possible causes?
  • Any need for tests?
  • The best treatment approach and any alternatives?
  • Requirement to take medicine?
  • What can be done at home to ease the symptoms?

The doctor may ask some questions which may include:

  • Beginning of the symptoms?
  • The symptoms have been continuous, or do they come and go?
  • Severity of the symptoms?
  • Anything improving symptoms?
  • Anything worsening symptoms?
  • Been in contact with anyone with similar symptoms?

What to be done in the meantime

Plenty of fluids should be drunk. Bland foods should be consumed to reduce stress on the digestive system. If the child is sick, the same approach should be followed and plenty of fluids and bland food should be offered. If breast-feeding or using formula then feeding the child as usual should be continued. Child’s doctor should be consulted if giving the child an oral rehydration solution, available without a prescription at pharmacies, would help.

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