Viral gastroenteritis is an intestinal infection caused by several different viruses. Highly contagious, viral gastroenteritis is the second most common illness in the United States. It causes millions of cases of diarrhea each year.
Anyone can get viral gastroenteritis and most people recover without any complications. However, viral gastroenteritis can be serious when people cannot drink enough fluids to replace what is lost through vomiting and diarrhea—especially infants, young children, the elderly, and people with weak immune systems.
The main symptoms of viral gastroenteritis are watery diarrhea and vomiting. Other symptoms are headache, fever, chills, and abdominal pain. Symptoms usually appear within 4 to 48 hours after exposure to the virus and last for 1 to 2 days, though symptoms can last as long as 10 days.
The viruses that cause viral gastroenteritis damage the cells in the lining of the small intestine. As a result, fluids leak from the cells into the intestine and produce watery diarrhea. Four types of viruses cause most viral gastroenteritis.
Viral gastroenteritis is often mistakenly called “stomach flu,” but it is not caused by the influenza virus and it does not infect the stomach. Also, viral gastroenteritis is not caused by bacteria or parasites. For information about bacterial infections, please see the Bacteria and Foodborne Illness.
Viral gastroenteritis is highly contagious. The viruses are commonly transmitted by people with unwashed hands. People can get the viruses through close contact with infected individuals by sharing their food, drink, or eating utensils, or by eating food or drinking beverages that are contaminated with the virus. Noroviruses in particular, are typically spread to other people by contact with stool or vomit of infected people and through contaminated water or food—especially oysters from contaminated waters.
People who no longer have symptoms may still be contagious, since the virus can be found in their stool for up to 2 weeks after they recover from their illness. Also, people can become infected without having symptoms and they can still spread the infection.
Outbreaks of viral gastroenteritis can occur in households, child care settings, schools, nursing homes, cruise ships, camps, dormitories, restaurants, and other places where people gather in groups. If you suspect that you were exposed to a virus in one of these settings or by foods prepared on the premise of places such as a restaurant, deli, or bakery, you may want to contact your local health department, which tracks outbreaks.
If you think you have viral gastroenteritis, you may want to see your doctor. Doctors generally diagnose viral gastroenteritis based on the symptoms and a physical examination. Your doctor may ask for a stool sample to test for rotavirus or to rule out bacteria or parasites as the cause of your symptoms. No routine tests are currently available for the other types of viruses.
Most cases of viral gastroenteritis resolve over time without specific treatment. Antibiotics are not effective against viral infections. The primary goal of treatment is to reduce the symptoms, and prompt treatment may be needed to prevent dehydration.
Your body needs fluids to function. Dehydration is the loss of fluids from the body. Important salts or minerals, known as electrolytes, can also be lost with the fluids. Dehydration can be caused by diarrhea, vomiting, excessive urination, excessive sweating, or by not drinking enough fluids because of nausea, difficulty swallowing, or loss of appetite.
In viral gastroenteritis, the combination of diarrhea and vomiting can cause dehydration. The symptoms of dehydration are
If you notice any of these symptoms, you should talk to your doctor. Mild dehydration can be treated by drinking liquids. Severe dehydration may require intravenous fluids and hospitalization. Untreated severe dehydration can be life threatening.
Children present special concerns. Because of their smaller body size, infants and children are at greater risk of dehydration from diarrhea and vomiting. Oral rehydration solutions such as Pedialyte can replace lost fluids, minerals, and salts.
The following steps may help relieve the symptoms of viral gastroenteritis.
Prevention is the best way to avoid viral gastroenteritis by following the tips listed below. No vaccine is available for viral gastroenteritis with the exception of a newly released rotavirus vaccine called Rotateq. The oral vaccine for infants aged 6 to 32 weeks was approved in February 2006 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Otherwise, you can avoid infection by …
Points to Remember