Most commonly known as the stomach flu, viral gastroenteritis is an infection that affects both the stomach and intestines. Caused by a virus, symptoms may include diarrhea, abdominal cramps, nausea, and vomiting. Note that this illness may also be called a stomach bug, although some “bugs” are actually caused by bacteria or a parasite, not a virus.
Viral gastroenteritis is, in fact, incredibly common worldwide, making it nearly impossible to determine how many suffer from it each year. Many different viruses may be to blame, and few patients are tested in clinics – two additional challenges to counting how many people suffer from the stomach flu. Experts estimate that norovirus is the most common culprit though, likely infecting about 685 million people each year.
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There are several viruses known to cause gastroenteritis. These can live for long periods outside of the body and can be found in the vomit and diarrhea of those infected. The virus spreads to objects that infected people touch, especially if they don’t wash their hands after using the bathroom, or if they work with food. Sewage contamination of the water supply can also spread viral gastroenteritis. Keep in mind that, while it is sometimes called the "stomach flu," the seasonal influenza virus does not cause it.
These are some of the most common viruses that cause gastroenteritis:
Note: Many other viruses can also cause viral gastroenteritis.
The most common complication of the stomach flu is dehydration. It occurs when you lose too many fluids and electrolytes due to frequent diarrhea or vomiting. People with weaker immune systems, particularly children, are more likely to experience dehydration – and in serious instances, it can become quite dangerous. Here at Charleston GI, our gastroenterologists recommend watching carefully or these signs of dehydration:
Most cases of the stomach flu progress through these stages:
Contact a healthcare provider you’re suffering:
Your gastroenterologist will diagnose the stomach flu based on your symptoms, but without a lab test, they will not be able to tell which virus you’ve been infected with. Most of the time, however, it is not necessary to know because no medication is needed.
Our GI doctors recommend resting, staying hydrated, and eating what you can. The most important thing is to let your immune system do its job! In rare cases of severe dehydration, IV (intravenous) fluids may be required.
Following foods are ok if your digestive system can tolerate them and/or if they are lactose free:
For food recommendation, it is best to consult your GI specialist or PCP directly for further information.
Good hygiene helps reduce your risk of contracting viral gastroenteritis – or spreading it to others. Some healthy hygiene practices include the following:
What helps stomach flu go away faster?
Some research suggests that taking probiotics may help stomach flu symptoms go away faster. Probiotic supplements add helpful bacteria to your GI tract – an important part of maintaining a strong immune system. Ask your gastroenterologist if probiotics might help you.
How long does it take to recover from a stomach flu?
Symptoms often improve within a few days, but if they persist, contact your Charleston GI doctor. You may be suffering from another condition. Those with weaker immune systems may need treatment for dehydration as well.
When can I return to work or school after having the stomach flu?
If you can, stay isolated for two days after symptoms have stopped. You are most contagious during this time period. Even though your immune system has overcome the infection, you’ll still shed the live virus in your stool and could potentially infect someone else.
What does getting a stomach flu feel like?
In most cases, symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea are unexpected and come on suddenly. Symptoms occur one to two days after exposure but don’t often last more than a few days.
What should you eat when you have stomach flu?
What you eat won’t improve stomach flu, but it can worsen symptoms. Fatty or sugary foods, beverages with caffeine, and dairy milk should be avoided. Once nausea begins to subside, try to eat easy-to-digest foods like fruit juice popsicles, broths and salted crackers.
Can a doctor treat severe stomach flu symptoms or complications?
Yes, your GI doctor can treat dehydration using IV fluids or prescribe medications to reduce vomiting or diarrhea (adults only).
How common is stomach flu?
Viral gastroenteritis is extremely common worldwide, making it tricky to estimate exactly how many cases occur each year. Experts estimate that norovirus, the most common cause, infects about 685 million people annually.
Why is viral gastroenteritis called “stomach flu?”
It’s not clear how the nickname came to be, or why many refer to viral gastroenteritis as the stomach flu. Both conditions tend to circulate during the same season, but it’s important to remember that viral gastroenteritis is not related to influenza.
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To learn more about treatment for GI tract issues in Charleston, SC, get in touch today! Charleston Gastroenterology is committed to a higher standard of caring – and we provide a range of medical treatments to help you feel your best.
If you are experiencing GI tract symptoms or pains, schedule your appointment today! No referral needed.