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Viral Gastroenteritis (Stomach Flu): Symptoms and Treatment

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What is viral gastroenteritis?

Viral gastroenteritis is an inflammation of your stomach and intestines caused by one of any number of viruses. Also known as the stomach flu, viral gastroenteritis affects people throughout the world.

This highly contagious illness spreads through close contact with people who are infected or through contaminated food or water.

It can easily spread in close quarters, such as:

  • child care facilities
  • schools
  • nursing homes
  • cruise ships

Different viruses can cause the illness, each with their own peak season. The most common viruses include norovirus and rotavirus.

There are steps you can take to lower your chances of contracting the viruses that cause viral gastroenteritis. These include frequent hand-washing and avoiding contaminated water and food products.

Most people make a full recovery in two or three days, with no lasting side effects.

Viral gastroenteritis is caused by a number of different viruses. People at higher risk are:

  • children under age 5
  • older adults, especially if they live in nursing homes
  • children and adults with compromised immune systems

It’s easy for this virus to spread in group situations. Some of the ways the virus is transmitted include:

  • improper hand-washing, especially by food handlers
  • water contaminated by sewage
  • consuming raw or undercooked shellfish from contaminated waters

Learn more about the individual viruses that can cause the condition.


Norovirus is highly contagious and can affect anyone at any age. It’s spread through contaminated food, water, and surfaces, or by people who have the virus. Norovirus is common in crowded spaces.

Symptoms include:

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most people with norovirus feel better within one to three days of experiencing symptoms.

Norovirus is the leading cause of gastroenteritis in the United States and worldwide. Most outbreaks in the United States occur between November and April.

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Rotavirus commonly affects infants and young children. They can then spread the infection to other children and adults. It’s usually contracted and transmitted through the mouth.

Symptoms typically appear within two days of infection and include:

According to the CDC, this virus is most common between the months of December and June.

A rotavirus vaccine was approved for infants in 2006. Early vaccination is recommended to prevent severe rotavirus illnesses in infants and small children.


The adenovirus affects people of all ages. It can cause several conditions, including gastroenteritis.

Adenovirus is contracted through the air via sneezing and coughing, by touching contaminated objects, or by touching the hands of someone with the virus.

Symptoms associated with adenovirus include:

Children in day care, especially those ages 6 months to 2 years, are more likely to get adenovirus.

Most children will feel better within a few days of experiencing adenovirus symptoms. However, symptoms such as pink eye may take longer to go away.


Astrovirus is another virus that commonly causes gastroenteritis in children. Symptoms associated with astrovirus include:

The virus usually affects people in late winter and early spring. It’s passed through contact with a person who has the virus or an infected surface or food.

Symptoms usually appear within two to three days after initial exposure, and the virus will usually go away within two to three days.

Symptoms of gastroenteritis usually begin one or two days after infection and include:

These symptoms can last anywhere from 1 to 10 days.

You should seek emergency medical treatment if:

  • diarrhea has lasted for three days or more without getting less frequent
  • blood is present in your diarrhea
  • you show or see signs of dehydration, such as dry lips or dizziness

In addition to the above symptoms, you should seek emergency attention for your child if they have the appearance of sunken eyes or if they aren’t making tears when they cry.

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Sometimes other factors can cause symptoms that closely resemble viral gastroenteritis. These causes include:

If your symptoms don’t get better in two to three days, you should see your doctor.

The main complication of viral gastroenteritis is dehydration, which can be quite severe in babies and young children. Other complications include:

Dehydration can be life-threatening. Call your doctor if you or your child have these symptoms:

The dehydration that can accompany viral gastroenteritis can lead to several complications of its own. These include:

To prevent complications, you should seek immediate medical attention if you or your child have symptoms of dehydration.

Most of the time, a medical history and physical exam is the basis for diagnosis, especially if there’s evidence that the virus is spreading through your community.

Your doctor may also order a stool sample to test for the type of virus or to find out if your illness is caused by a parasitic or bacterial infection.

The main focus of treatment is to prevent dehydration by drinking plenty of fluids. In severe cases, hospitalization and intravenous fluids are necessary.

Over-the-counter oral rehydration solutions (OHS), such as Pedialyte, can be helpful in mild cases. They are made to be easy on your child’s stomach, and they contain a balanced mixture of water and salts to replenish essential fluids and electrolytes.

These solutions are available at local…

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