Medical Corner: Gastroenteritis – what it is, how to avoid it

  • Published
  • By Public Health Element
  • 71st Medical Operations Squadron
When you come down with the stomach flu, it isn't important that you're not really dealing with influenza viruses. How you got it and what to do about it is much higher on your priority list. 

Your case of the stomach flu is called gastroenteritis. It means inflammation of the stomach and small and large intestines. Viral gastroenteritis is an infection caused by a variety of viruses that result in vomiting or diarrhea or both. 

The following information will help you understand what you've got, and how to keep from getting it again. 

What are the symptoms of viral gastroenteritis? The main symptoms are watery diarrhea and vomiting. You may also have a headache, fever, and abdominal cramps or stomach ache. In general, the symptoms begin one to two days following infection with a virus that causes gastroenteritis and may last for one to 10 days, depending on which virus causes the illness.

Is viral gastroenteritis a serious illness? For most people, it is not. People who get viral gastroenteritis almost always recover completely without any long-term problems. Gastroenteritis is a serious illness, however, for those who are unable to drink enough fluids to replace what they lose through vomiting or diarrhea.
Infants, young children, and those who are unable to care for themselves, such as the disabled or elderly, are at risk for dehydration from loss of fluids. Immune compromised persons are at risk for dehydration because they may get a more serious illness, with greater vomiting or diarrhea. They may need to be hospitalized for treatment to correct or prevent dehydration. 

Is the illness contagious -- how is it spread? Yes, viral gastroenteritis is contagious. The viruses are spread through close contact with infected persons, for example, by sharing food, water or eating utensils. Individuals may also become infected by eating or drinking contaminated foods or beverages.

How does food get contaminated? Food gets contaminated by food preparers or handlers who have viral gastroenteritis, especially if they do not wash their hands regularly after using the bathroom. Shellfish may be contaminated by sewage, and people who eat raw or undercooked shellfish harvested from contaminated waters may get diarrhea. Drinking water can also be contaminated by sewage and be a source of spread of these viruses.

Where does viral gastroenteritis occur? Viral gastroenteritis affects people in all parts of the world. Each virus has its own seasonal activity. For example, in the United States, rotavirus and astrovirus infections occur during the cooler months of the year, October to April, whereas adenovirus infections occur throughout the year.
Norovirus outbreaks can occur in institutional settings, such as schools, child care facilities and nursing homes, and can occur in other group settings, such as banquet halls, cruise ships, dormitories, and campgrounds. 

Who gets viral gastroenteritis? Anyone can. Viral gastroenteritis occurs in people of all ages and backgrounds. However, some viruses tend to cause diarrheal disease primarily among people in specific age groups. Rotavirus and norovirus infections are the most common cause of diarrhea in infants and young children under 5 years old.

Adenoviruses and astroviruses cause diarrhea mostly in young children, but older children and adults can also be affected. Norwalk and noroviruses are more likely to cause diarrhea in older children and adults. 

How is viral gastroenteritis diagnosed? Generally, viral gastroenteritis is diagnosed by a physician on the basis of symptoms and medical examination of the patient. Rotavirus infection can be diagnosed by laboratory testing of a stool specimen. 

How is viral gastroenteritis treated? The most important treatment for viral gastroenteritis in children and adults is to prevent severe loss of fluids. This treatment should begin at home. Your physician may give you specific instructions about what kinds of fluid to give.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that families with infants and young children keep a supply of oral rehydration solution at home at all times and use the solution when diarrhea first occurs in the child. The solutions are available at pharmacies without a prescription. Follow the written directions on the package, and use clean or boiled water. 

Medications, including antibiotics -- which have no effect on viruses -- and other treatments, should be avoided unless specifically recommended by a physician. 

Can viral gastroenteritis be prevented? You can reduce your chance of getting infected by frequent handwashing, prompt disinfection of contaminated surfaces with household chlorine bleach-based cleaners, and prompt washing of soiled articles of clothing. If food or water is thought to be contaminated, avoid it.