The Stomach Flu (Viral Gastroenteritis) is often mistakenly called "- stomach flu," but it is not caused by the influenza virus, bacteria or parasites and it does not infect the stomach.
The "Stomach Flu" is an intestinal infection caused by several different viruses and is the second most common illness in the United States.
This illness causes millions of cases of diarrhea each year and millions of dollars in lost productivity and days away from work, school, etc.
Stomach Flu Causes
The viruses that cause Stomach Flu damage the cells in the lining of the small intestine. As a result, fluids leak from the cells into the intestine and produce watery diarrhea.
Four types of viruses cause most Stomach Flu (Viral Gastroenteritis).
Caliciviruses cause infection in people of all ages. This family of viruses is divided into 4 types, the noroviruses being the most common and most responsible for infecting people.
The noroviruses are usually responsible for epidemics of Stomach Flu (Viral Gastroenteritis) and occur more frequently from October to April. Infected people experience vomiting and diarrhea, fatigue, headache, and sometimes muscle aches. The symptoms appear within 1 to 3 days of exposure.
Rotavirus is the leading cause among children 3 to 15 months old and the most common cause of diarrhea in children under the age of 5 years. Symptoms of rotavirus infection appear 1 to 2 days after exposure.
Rotavirus typically causes vomiting and watery diarrhea for 3 to 8 days, along with fever and abdominal pain. Rotavirus can also infect adults who are in close contact with infected children, but the symptoms in adults are milder. In the United States, rotavirus infections are most common from November to April.
Adenovirus occurs mainly in children under the age of 2 years. Of the 49 types of adenoviruses, one strain effects the gastrointestinal tract causing vomiting and diarrhea. Symptoms typically appear 1 week after exposure. Adenovirus infections occur year round.
Astrovirus also infects primarily infants, young children, and the elderly. This virus is most active during the winter months. Vomiting and diarrhea appear within 1 to 3 days of exposure.
Stomach Flu Symptoms
Anyone can get Stomach Flu and most people recover without any complications. However, Stomach Flu can be serious when people cannot drink enough fluids to replace what is lost through vomiting and diarrhea-especially the elderly, infants, young children, and people with weak immune systems.
The main symptoms of Stomach Flu are watery diarrhea and vomiting. Other symptoms are headache, fever, chills, and abdominal pain.
Symptoms usually appear within 4 to 48 hours after exposure to the virus and last for 1 to 2 days, though symptoms can last as long as 10 days.
Stomach Virus Diagnosis
If you think you have Stomach Flu (Viral Gastroenteritis), you may want to see your doctor. Doctors generally diagnose Stomach Flu (Viral Gastroenteritis) based on the symptoms and a physical examination. Your doctor may ask for a stool sample to test for rotavirus or to rule out bacteria or parasites as the cause of your symptoms. No routine tests are currently available for the other types of viruses.
Stomach Virus Transmission
Stomach Flu (Viral Gastroenteritis) is highly contagious.
Outbreaks of Stomach Flu (Viral Gastroenteritis) can occur in households, childcare settings, schools, nursing homes, cruise ships, camps, dormitories, restaurants, and other places where people gather in groups.
If you suspect that you were exposed to a virus in one of these settings or by foods prepared on the premise of places such as a restaurant, deli, or bakery, you may want to contact your local health department, which tracks outbreaks.
People with unwashed hands commonly transmit the viruses. People can get the viruses through close contact with infected individuals by sharing their food, drink, or eating utensils, or by eating food or drinking beverages that are contaminated with the virus.
Noroviruses in particular, are typically spread to other people by contact with stool or vomit of infected people and through contaminated water or food-- especially oysters from contaminated waters.
People who no longer have symptoms may still be contagious, since the virus can be found in their stool for up to 2 weeks after they recover from their illness. Also, people can become infected without having symptoms and they can still spread the infection.
Stomach Virus Treatment
Most cases of Stomach Flu (Viral Gastroenteritis) resolve over time without specific treatment. Antibiotics are not effective against viral infections. The primary goal of treatment is to reduce the symptoms, and prompt treatment may be needed to prevent dehydration.
Your body needs fluids to function. Dehydration is the loss of fluids from the body. Important salts or minerals, known as electrolytes, can also be lost with the fluids. Dehydration can be caused by diarrhea, vomiting, excessive urination, excessive sweating, or by not drinking enough fluids because of nausea, difficulty swallowing, or loss of appetite.
In Stomach Flu (Viral Gastroenteritis), the combination of diarrhea and vomiting can cause dehydration. The symptoms of dehydration are:
- Excessive thirst
- Severe weakness or lethargy
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Dry mouth
- Little or no urine or dark yellow urine
- Decreased tears
If you notice any of these symptoms, you should talk to your doctor. Drinking liquids can treat mild dehydration. Severe dehydration may require intravenous fluids and hospitalization. Untreated severe dehydration can be life threatening.
Children present special concerns. Because of their smaller body size, infants and children are at greater risk of dehydration from diarrhea and vomiting. Oral rehydration solutions such as Pedialyte can replace lost fluids, minerals, and salts. Elderly are also at risk since dehydration can impact their blood pressure and put their health at risk.
The following steps may help relieve the symptoms of Stomach Flu (Viral Gastroenteritis).
- Allow your gastrointestinal tract to settle by not eating for a few hours.
- Sip small amounts of clear liquids or suck on ice chips if vomiting is still a problem.
- Consume at least 72 ounces of water to avoid dehydration.
- Consider rehydration solutions to replace fluids and lost electrolytes.
- Limit your diet to rest the gastrointentestinal tract and speed healing.
- Drink chicken or vegetable broth, and eat baked apples and/or pears. Pectin in these fruits soothes the stomach and helps stop diarrhea.
- Gradually reintroduce food, starting with bland, easy-to-digest food, like toast, broth, apples, bananas, and rice.
- Avoid dairy products, caffeine, and alcohol until recovery is complete.
- Get plenty of rest.
Drink non-caffeinated chamomile tea (helps with rest), peppermint, ginger, black or green teas which have anti-nausea and anti vomiting properties. Make strong teas (2 bags seeped, with 12 ounces of water and drink 3 to 6 cups per day on an empty stomach until symptoms subside.
Use a mustard poultice that will relieve nausea and vomiting. A mustard poultice works mainly by increasing circulation, perspiration and heat in the afflicted area.
The person receiving the treatment should sit or lie down comfortably. The best poultices are made from black mustard seeds ground fresh in a coffee grinder, but ordinary yellow mustard powder will do in a pinch.
To prepare a mustard poultice, mix 1/2 cup mustard powder with 1-cup flour and stir hot water into the mix to form a paste. Spread the mixture on a piece of cotton or muslin has been soaked in hot water. Cover with a second piece of dry material. Lay the moist side of the poultice across the affected area, cover the material with a hot water bottle or heating pad, and leave the poultice on for 15 to 30 minutes; promptly remove it if the person experiences any discomfort.
The procedure is likely to promote perspiration and reddening of the area. Give the individual plenty of liquids during the procedure. Apply 2x a day. Take a warm or cool shower afterward, then rest. Do not administer this treatment to a young child, elderly person or the seriously ill without consulting a health care professional.
Take an herbal tincture. Clinical trials confirm that herbs such as Oregon grape root and geranium have antimicrobial properties, while slippery elm and licorice reduce inflammation, and promote tissue growth in the intestine. Make a mixture of equal parts of these tinctures. Take 60 drops of the combined tinctures in 2 ounces of water on an empty stomach four times a day for up to five days.
Try Probiotics. Bifdobacterium bifidum and lactobacillus acidophilus replenish the "good" bacteria in the bowels. This will make your system stronger and reduce your likelihood of reinfection.
Antibiotics prescribed by conventional medicine can destroy both good and bad bacteria, and unless the friendly bacteria are replaced you will be more prone for reinfections; a vicious cycle that will prevent you from being 100%. Take 10 billion colony-forming units (CFUs) each in four divided doses daily for the duration of the illness and for three weeks after the symptoms have resolved.
Stomach Flu Prevention
Prevention is the only way to avoid Stomach Flu (Viral Gastroenteritis). No vaccine is available. You can avoid infection by:
- Washing your hands thoroughly for 20 seconds after using the bathroom or changing diapers
- Washing your hands thoroughly for 20 seconds before eating
- Disinfecting contaminated surfaces such as counter tops and baby changing stations
- Not eating or drinking foods or liquids that might be contaminated
- Maintaining good stomach flora.
This is especially important if you have been prescribed antibiotics for any other condition. Antibiotics prescribed by conventional medicine can destroy both good and bad bacteria, and unless the friendly bacteria are replaced you will be more prone to the stomach flu. Try probiotics such as bifdobacterium bifidum and lactobacillus acidophilus. These good bacteria will make your system stronger and reduce your likelihood of reinfection.
Important Points To Remember
- Stomach Flu (Viral Gastroenteritis) is an infection of the intestines caused by one of several viruses.
- Although sometimes called "stomach flu," Stomach Flu (Viral Gastroenteritis) is not caused by the influenza virus and does not affect the stomach.
- Anyone can get Stomach Flu (Viral Gastroenteritis) through unwashed hands, close contact with an infected person, or food and beverages that contain the virus. Stomach Flu (Viral Gastroenteritis) is highly contagious.
- The main symptoms of the stomach flu (Viral Gastroenteritis) are watery diarrhea and vomiting. The symptoms of dehydration are excessive thirst, dry mouth, dark yellow urine or little or no urine, decreased tears, severe weakness or lethargy, and dizziness or lightheadedness.
- Infants, young children, the elderly, and people with weak immune systems have a higher risk of developing dehydration due to vomiting and diarrhea, therefore it is extremely important that they are properly rehydrated.
- Diagnosis is based on the symptoms and a physical examination. Currently only rotavirus can be rapidly detected in a stool test.
- Avoid Stomach Flu (Viral Gastroenteritis) by washing hands thoroughly after using the bathroom or changing diapers, disinfecting contaminated surfaces, and avoiding foods or liquids that might be contaminated.
- Antibiotics prescribed by conventional medicine can destroy both good and bad bacteria, and unless the friendly bacteria are replaced you will be more prone to the stomach flu. Try probiotics such as bifdobacterium bifidum and lactobacillus acidophilus. These good bacteria will make your system stronger and reduce your likelihood of reinfection.
- Stomach Flu (Viral Gastroenteritis) has no specific treatment; antibiotics are not effective against viruses.
- Treatment focuses on reducing the symptoms and preventing dehydration. There are many natural treatments to help alleviate symptoms.
- People with Stomach Flu (Viral Gastroenteritis) should rest, drink clear liquids, and eat easy-to-digest foods.
Vaccine On The Horizon?
It may be possible to develop a vaccine in the future. It would most likely be a vaccine to control noroviruses -- a common cause of stomach flu. The success of such a vaccine is still open for debate, since such a vaccine would have to be changed every year, like flu vaccines, because the viruses evolve quickly to avoid attacks by the immune system, new research suggests.