Viral gastroenteritis is inflammation of the stomach and intestines from a virus. The infection can lead to diarrhea and vomiting. It is sometimes called the "stomach flu."
Viral gastroenteritis is a leading cause of severe diarrhea in both adults and children. Many types of viruses can cause gastroenteritis. The most common ones are:
These viruses are often found in contaminated food or drinking water. Symptoms of viral gastroenteritis usually appear within 4 - 48 hours after exposure to the contaminated food or water.
Those with the highest risk for severe gastroenteritis include the young, the elderly, and people who have suppressed immune systems.
Other symptoms may include:
Your health care provider will look for signs that the body does not have enough water (dehydration). These include:
Tests that examine stool samples may be used to identify the specific virus. This is usually not needed for viral gastroenteritis. A stool culture may be done to identify a bacterial cause for diarrhea.
The goal of treatment is to prevent dehydration by making sure the body has as much water and fluids as it should. Fluids and electrolytes (salt and minerals) lost through diarrhea or vomiting must be replaced by drinking extra fluids. Even if you are able to eat, you should still drink extra fluids between meals.
Food may be offered frequently in small amounts. Suggested foods include:
People with diarrhea who are unable to drink fluids because of nausea may need intravenous (directly into a vein) fluids. This is especially true in small children.
Antibiotics do not work for viruses.
Drugs to slow down the amount of diarrhea (anti-diarrheal medications) should not be given without first talking with your health care provider. They may cause the infection to last longer. DO NOT give these anti-diarrheal medications to children unless directed to do so by a health care provider.
People taking water pills (diuretics) who develop diarrhea may be told by their health care provider to stop taking the diuretic during the acute episode. However, DO NOT stop taking any prescription medicine without first talking to your doctor.
The risk of dehydration is greatest in infants and young children, so parents should closely monitor the number of wet diapers changed per day when their child is sick.
Most infections will go away on their own. Children may become severely ill from dehydration caused by diarrhea.
Rotavirus causes severe gastroenteritis in infants and young children. Severe dehydration and death can occur in thisÃ‚Â age group.
Call your health care provider if diarrhea persists for more than several days or if dehydration occurs. You should also contact your doctor if you or your child has these symptoms:
Most infectious organisms are transmitted by unwashed hands. The best way to prevent viral gastroenteritis is to handle food properly and wash hands thoroughly after using the toilet.
Vaccination to prevent severe rotavirus infection is recommended for infants starting at age 2 months.
Rotavirus infection; Norwalk virus; Gastroenteritis - viral; Stomach flu