What is a stomach virus?
Gastroenteritis is a medical term for a stomach virus. Many people call it the stomach flu. It is not the same as influenza. That is a respiratory illness. This is an inflammation of your stomach lining. A stomach virus can strike anyone at any age. It can be harmful for babies, older people, and anyone with a low immune system who may develop complications. These viruses are usually mild and go away on their own. Severe cases of the stomach virus can lead to other health problems or death.
Symptoms of a stomach virus
Common symptoms include:
- Stomach pain
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loss of appetite
- Headache and body aches
What causes a stomach virus?
Several things can cause a stomach virus:
- Norovirus: This is the main cause. This represents a family of viruses.
- Rotavirus: This is a viral infection. This is common in babies and young kids.
Viral stomach infections are contagious. It is easy to get and give a stomach virus. It is spread by contact with an infected person, surface, or object. Stomach viruses are likely to spread at places with a lot of people. This includes schools, daycares, nursing homes, airplanes, cruise ships, and hospitals. Stomach viruses are common in cold weather months.
How is a stomach virus diagnosed?
Your doctor will do a physical exam and ask you questions about your symptoms. Your doctor may ask you to provide a stool sample. This is to rule out other health problems.
Can a stomach virus be prevented or avoided?
A flu shot will not prevent a stomach virus. The flu shot only prevent the influenza virus. That is a respiratory illness.
The norovirus can change over time. Therefore, vaccines are still being studied. A rotavirus vaccine is available. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends children get a rotavirus vaccine. Two different vaccines exist. They require 2 to 3 doses. Children should receive the full vaccine prior to 8 months of age.
You can help prevent or avoid a stomach virus by doing these things:
- Wash your hands often.
- Cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze or cough.
- Clean and disinfect surfaces and objects in your home, office, and classroom.
- Use hand sanitizer after being in public.
- Separate the laundry of a sick person from the rest of the family.
- Stay away from people who have the virus.
If you have stomach virus, be responsible. Do not expose others to it. This includes babies, older people, and people with a low immune system. Do not go to school, work, or public places.
Stomach virus treatment
There is no medicine that can treat a stomach virus. It has to run its course. You can do things to ease symptoms:
- Eat bland foods.
- Drink clear, fizzy drinks (ginger ale is best).
- Stay hydrated.
Vomiting, diarrhea, and not eating or drinking causes dehydration. If you are dehydrated, you may need to go to the hospital for IV fluids. A saline solution will be injected into your veins to replace your fluids. Signs you are dehydrated include:
- Dark, yellow urine
- Increased thirst
- Feeling dizzy or fainting
- Rapid heartbeat
- Rapid breathing
- Lack of energy
- Babies will be fussy and cry (they will not have tears if they are dehydrated)
Water or sports drinks with vitamins and nutrients are helpful. Avoid caffeine and alcohol.
Stay home and get plenty of rest. Adults can take over-the-counter medicine, such as aspirin or ibuprofen, to help reduce fever and pain. Contact your doctor if your symptoms persist or get worse. Severe symptoms include seizures.
Living with a stomach virus
Stomach viruses are often mild and go away on their own in 1 to 3 days. Babies, older adults, or people who have low immune systems should see the doctor right away. This can help prevent their infection from getting worse.
Questions to ask your doctor
- How do I know if the virus is the norovirus or rotavirus?
- Can I get the virus more than once a season?
- What should I do if I am pregnant and have a stomach virus?
- Are there serious complications to a norovirus or rotavirus?
- Is there any medicine I can take to help with abdominal cramps?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.