Stomach Disorders Viral Gastroenteritis

Gastroenteritis is a generic term for inflammation of the stomach and the large and small intestine. Gastroenteritis is characterized by diarrhea, abdominal cramps and vomiting.

What Causes Gastroenteritis?

The three main causes of gastroenteritis are viral infections, the consumption of bacteria-contaminated food or water and side effects of certain medications or other medical conditions.

Gastroenteritis Symptoms

Symptoms of gastroenteritis include:

  • diarrhea: the main symptom and common to all types of gastroenteritis
  • abdominal cramps: often severe and stabbing abdominal pain
  • dehydration: severe dehydration in infants under the age of one may require hospitalization
  • vomiting: often accompanied by nausea
  • low-grade fever: usually only applies to viral gastroenteritis
  • muscle spasms: pain ranges in severity from mild muscle ache to sharper stomach pains
  • loss of appetite: sometimes combined with nausea.

What is the Treatment for Gastroenteritis?

As the symptoms for all types of gastroenteritis are remarkably similar, self-diagnosis is not recommended. Your doctor can identify the specific cause of gastroenteritis.

Gastroenteritis has no single cure. Therefore, an awareness of the causes and taking simple precautionary measures is your best option.

The most important aspect of treating gastroenteritis is fluid intake to replace fluids lost through diarrhea and vomiting.

What is Viral Gastroenteritis?

Viral gastroenteritis, as its name suggests, is caused by a number of possible viruses including:

  • rotavirus: the main cause of gastroenteritis among infants, or adults in contact with infected infants
  • adenovirus and astrovirus: affects mainly young children
  • calicivirus: affecting adults and children indiscriminately
  • Norwalk virus: mainly targets adults and older children.

Viral gastroenteritis is contagious. This means that the condition can be spread through physical contact with people infected with viral gastroenteritis by sharing food, drinking from the same container, sharing food preparation equipment or kissing.

Because of its contagious nature, viral gastroenteritis favors institutional settings such as schools and nursing homes. Even cruise ships are not immune.

Stomach Flu

Viral gastroenteritis is often incorrectly called “stomach flu.” Although diarrhea and vomiting may be flu symptoms, viral gastroenteritis is caused by other viruses and not by the influenza virus.

Symptoms of Viral Gastroenteritis

Although the cause of viral gastroenteritis is different from other types of gastroenteritis, the symptoms are similar, particularly “watery” diarrhea and vomiting. Other symptoms of viral gastroenteritis include abdominal cramps, fever and headaches.

Symptoms of viral gastroenteritis generally present within 48 hours of infection and typically persist from one to ten days.

Sufficient fluid intake to compensate for dehydration as a result of diarrhea and vomiting is the key to a speedy recovery from viral gastroenteritis. Infants and young children, in particular, are vulnerable and should be monitored closely for signs of dehydration.

Did you know that . . .

. . . certain viruses that cause viral gastroenteritis have active and dormant phases, dependent on climatic conditions? Rotavirus and astrovirus, for instance, are particularly partial to cool temperatures.

Diagnosis of Viral Gastroenteritis

The diagnosis of viral gastroenteritis is a relatively straightforward procedure, based on a physical exam and the presenting symptoms. If the doctor suspects rotavirus infection, a stool analysis may be necessary.

Treatment for Viral Gastroenteritis

Preventing dehydration is the main treatment for viral gastroenteritis. Your doctor will advise a re-hydration program, based on the age of the patient and the severity of the symptoms. Over-the-counter remedies such as electrolyte solutions are often used to treat the symptoms of viral gastroenteritis.

How to Prevent Recurrence of Viral Gastroenteritis

Preventive measures include the following:

  • Avoid sharing food or drinks with infected people.
  • Wash and rinse your hands thoroughly after using the bathroom.
  • Disinfect contaminated surfaces around the home.
  • Wash clothing, bedding and towels at a high temperature.
  • Avoid drinking contaminated water.

Bacterial Causes of Gastroenteritis

The symptoms of gastroenteritis caused by bacteria are very similar to the symptoms for viral gastroenteritis.

Common bacterial causes of gastroenteritis include the consumption of food or water infected with the Salmonella and E. coli (Escherichia coli). Intestinal parasites such as Cryptosporidium may also be responsible, or the parasite, Giardia lamblia that thrives in animal and human feces. Gastroenteritis caused by Giardia lamblia is also known as giardiasis.

Toxic Causes of Gastroenteritis

Gastroenteritis is sometimes caused by eating food contaminated with naturally occurring chemical toxins, such as certain types of seafood or poisonous mushrooms.

Other Causes of Gastroenteritis

Gastroenteritis also may be caused by other existing medical conditions, or by the side effects of medication taken to treat other, sometimes unrelated, diseases.

Side effects such as diarrhea, vomiting and nausea have been linked with certain antibiotics, antacid medications and drugs used for treating heart disease and cancer.


Beers, M.H.