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Gastroenteritis is a general term for the stomach virus or stomach flu. It is called this because of its symptoms. This is not the same as the flu, which is short for the influenza virus.
Anyone can get a stomach virus. It occurs when the lining of your stomach or intestines becomes inflamed. It usually is mild and goes away on its own. A stomach virus can be harmful for babies, older people, or anyone who has a low immune system. They are more likely to develop a serious infection or become dehydrated. Severe cases of the stomach virus can lead to other health problems or death.
Symptoms of a stomach virus
The leading symptoms of a stomach virus are:
- stomach pain
- nausea and vomiting
- headache and body aches.
What causes a stomach virus?
Several things can cause gastroenteritis. The main cause is a family of viruses called norovirus. Rotovirus also is a viral infection that causes gastroenteritis. This is most common in babies and young kids.
Viral stomach infections are very contagious. It is easy to get and give a stomach virus. You might touch infected people directly. You also could come into contact with an infected surface or object. People often get a stomach virus at places with a lot of people. This includes schools, daycares, nursing homes, airplanes, cruise ships, and even hospitals. This type of gastroenteritis happens more in the cold weather months.
Another form of gastroenteritis is food poisoning. You could have a single case of food poisoning or be part of a large outbreak. These begin in places where people handle food, such as restaurants or food processing plants. You might have heard about food recalls because of cases of food poisoning.
You also can get gastroenteritis as a reaction to allergies, bacteria, or medicine.
How is a stomach virus diagnosed?
Doctors can diagnose gastroenteritis by reviewing your symptoms and doing a physical exam. Your doctor may order a stool, or feces, test to rule out other health problems.
Can a stomach virus be prevented or avoided?
Getting a flu shot cannot prevent stomach viruses. The flu shot helps prevent the influenza virus, a different disease.
The components of norovirus often change over time, so there isn’t a vaccine to prevent it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) do recommend children get a rotavirus vaccine. Two different vaccines exist and have 2 to 3 doses. The CDC states that they should receive the full vaccine prior to 8 months of age.
There are other ways you can help prevent or avoid most types of stomach viruses. If you have a viral infection, do not go around other people, especially babies or older people.
You can protect against viral infections that cause gastroenteritis by:
- Washing your hands often.
- Covering your mouth when you sneeze.
- Using household cleaning spray to disinfect surfaces and objects, such as countertops and toilets.
- Using hand sanitizer after being in public.
- Washing laundry of sick people separate from other items.
- Keeping your children, especially newborns, away from anyone who is sick.
You cannot always prevent food poisoning. Ways to reduce your risk are:
- Preparing food safely.
- Not eating food that is expired.
- Not drinking water that could contain bacteria.
- Not cooking food for other people when you are sick.
Contact your local health department if you get gastroenteritis from a certain food or restaurant. This alert will stop people from using the product and help correct the mistake.
Stomach virus treatment
If you have a stomach virus that is contagious, you should stay away from people so you don’t spread it. Prescription medicine might treat some bacterial infections. It cannot treat viral infections.
You should stay at home and get plenty of rest. Adults can take over-the-counter medicine, such as aspirin or ibuprofen, to help reduce fever and pain. It also is important to drink extra liquids to prevent dehydration. Water or sports drinks with vitamins and nutrients can be helpful. You should avoid caffeine and alcohol.
Signs that indicate dehydration include:
- Dry mouth and skin.
- Increased thirst.
- Feeling dizzy or light-headed.
- Feeling tired or weak.
- Decreased urination.
- Yellow or dark-colored urine.
- Painful urination.
- Difficulty producing tears (babies).
Contact your doctor if your symptoms persist or get worse. Severe symptoms include passing out and seizures. You may need to go to the hospital for IV (intravenous) fluids.
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 what type of gastroenteritis I have and if it is contagious?
- If I had gastroenteritis, can I get it again?
- What should I do if I’m pregnant and get a stomach virus?
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.