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Definition

Viral gastroenteritis (often called stomach flu) is an intestinal infection characterized by runny diarrhea, abdominal cramps, vomiting, and occasionally fever.

The most common way to develop stomach flu is through contact with an infected person or by ingesting contaminated food or water. If the patient is otherwise healthy, they will recover without complications. But for infants, older adults and people with compromised immune systems, viral gastroenteritis can be deadly.

There's no effective treatment for viral gastroenteritis, so prevention is key. In addition to avoiding food and water that may be contaminated, thorough and frequent hand-washing before cooking and eating food is the best defense.

Symptoms

Although it's commonly called stomach flu, gastroenteritis isn't the same as influenza. Real flu (influenza) affects only the respiratory system - the nose, throat and lungs. Gastroenteritis, on the other hand, attacks the intestines, causing signs and symptoms, such as:

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

Depending on the cause, viral gastroenteritis symptoms may appear within one to three days after the patient is infected and can range from mild to severe. Symptoms usually last just a day or two, but occasionally they may persist as long as 10 days.

Risk Factors

Gastroenteritis occurs all over the world, affecting people of every age, race and background.

People who may be more susceptible to gastroenteritis include:

  • Young Kids: Children may be especially susceptible because it takes time for a child's immune system to mature.
  • Older Adults: Adult immune systems tend to become less competent later in life. Older adults in nursing homes, in particular, are vulnerable because their immune systems deteriorate and they live in close contact with others who may transfer germs.
  • Anybody with a Weak Immune System. If the resistance to infection is low - for instance, the patient may be at risk if the immune system is compromised by chemotherapy or another medical condition.

Diagnosis

Reach out for medical assistance, if the patient is:

  • Not able to keep liquids down for 24 hours
  • Been vomiting for more than two days
  • Been vomiting blood
  • Dehydrated - signs of dehydration include excessive thirst, dry mouth, deep yellow urine or little or no urine, and severe weakness, dizziness
  • Has blood in the bowel movements
  • Has a body temperature above 104 F (40 C)

For Toddlers and Children

Seek immediate medical assistance if the child experiences any of the below mentioned signs:

  • Has a fever of 102 F (38.9 C) or higher
  • Seems exhausted or very petulant
  • Is in a lot of distress or pain
  • Has bloody diarrhea
  • Seems dehydrated

Treatment

There's often no specific medical treatment for viral gastroenteritis. Antibiotics aren't effective against viruses, and over usage can contribute to the growth of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. IV fluids may be needed in severe cases. If not hydration needs to be maintained by Oral Rehydration Solutions.

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