Viral gastroenteritis, often called the stomach flu, is an intestinal infection marked by watery diarrhea, abdominal cramps, nausea, and or vomiting.
Although it's commonly called stomach flu, gastroenteritis isn't the same as influenza. Real flu (influenza) affects your respiratory system – your nose, throat, and lungs.
Gastroenteritis, on the other hand, attacks your intestines, causing signs and symptoms such as:
watery, usually nonbloody diarrhea. Bloody diarrhea usually means you have a different, more severe infection.
abdominal cramps and pain
nausea, vomiting, or both
occasional muscle aches or headache
Vomiting and diarrhea may last just a day or two, but occasionally the nausea or upset stomach may persist.
How Viral Gastroenteritis Spreads
The most common way to develop viral gastroenteritis is through contact with an infected person or ingestion of contaminated food or water.
A number of viruses can be the cause of gastroenteritis, including:
Noroviruses: There are many different strains of noroviruses, including Norwalk virus, that all cause similar symptoms. In addition to diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting, you may experience muscle aches, headache, fatigue and low-grade fever.
Rotavirus: This is the most common cause of infectious diarrhea in infants and children worldwide. Adults who are infected with rotavirus usually don't develop symptoms, but can still spread the illness. Some people, particularly those in institutional settings, may spread the virus even though they don't have any symptoms of illness themselves.
Dehydration is the most common serious complication of gastroenteritis.
Dehydration is a severe loss of water and essential salts and minerals.
If you're a healthy adult and drink enough to replace fluids you lose from vomiting and diarrhea, dehydration shouldn't be a problem.
Treatments and Drugs
There's often no specific medical treatment for viral gastroenteritis. Antibiotics aren't effective against viruses and overusing them can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria.
Treatment consists of self-care steps. To help keep yourself more comfortable and prevent dehydration while you recover, try the following:
Let your stomach settle. After vomiting has stopped for one hour, drink one ounce of a clear liquid every 20 minutes for one hour.
Try sucking on ice chips or taking small sips of water. You might also try drinking clear soda, such as 7UP or Sprite; clear broths; or noncaffeinated sports drinks, such as Gatorade.
Avoid solid food until the vomiting episode has passed. Gradually begin to eat bland, easy-to-digest foods such as soda crackers, potatoes, toast, gelatin, bananas, rice, and chicken. Stop eating if your nausea returns.
Avoid dairy products, sugary foods, such as ice cream, sodas and candy, caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, and fatty or highly seasoned foods until you feel better.
Get plenty of rest. The illness and dehydration may have made you weak and tired.
Be cautious with medications. Use medications such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, others) sparingly, if at all. They can make your stomach more upset. Use acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) cautiously.
When to See a Medical Provider
If you are not able to keep liquids down for 24 hours.
If you have been vomiting for more than two days.
If you are vomiting blood.
If you get dehydrated. Signs of dehydration include excessive thirst, dry mouth, deep yellow urine or little or no urine, and severe weakness, dizziness, or lightheadedness
If you notice blood in your bowel movements.
If you have a fever above 102°F (40°C).
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