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Gastroenteritis – Causes, Symptoms and Treatment


Have you ever had the “stomach flu?” What you probably had was gastroenteritis – not a type of flu at all. Gastroenteritis is an inflammation of the lining of the intestines caused by a virus, bacteria or parasites. Viral gastroenteritis is the second most common illness in the U.S. It spreads through contaminated food or water, and contact with an infected person. The best prevention is frequent hand washing.

What are the symptoms of gastroenteritis?

The main symptoms of viral gastroenteritis are watery diarrhea and vomiting. The affected person may also have headache, fever, and abdominal cramps (“stomach ache”). In general, the symptoms begin 1 to 2 days following infection with a virus that causes gastroenteritis and may last for 1 to 10 days, depending on which virus causes the illness.


Many people feel that any stools “looser” or softer than normal constitute diarrhea. This isn’t really the case. Our stools vary in consistency depending on diet: older children and adults may have hard and soft stools in the same day, while infants’ stools tend to be looser than older childrens’ but still depend on what they are fed. Usually, babies fed breast milk produce looser stools than formula-fed babies, and babies fed soy-based formulas often have firmer stools than those being given milk-based formulas.

Gastroenteritis Causes

Gastroenteritis has many causes. Viruses and bacteria are the most common.

Viruses and bacteria are very contagious and can spread through contaminated food or water. In up to 50% of diarrheal outbreaks, no specific agent is found. Improper handwashing following a bowel movement or handling a diaper can spread the disease from person to person.

Between January 1996 and November 2000, 348 outbreaks of norovirus were reported to the CDC. Out of these, 54% patients were contaminated by food, 17% by person to person, 4% by water, and 25% by unidentified sources. Most of the food sources responsible were identified as oysters, salads, salad dressing, sandwiches, deli meats, cake and frosting, raspberries, drinking water, and ice. Shellfish have been implicated in some outbreaks, but it is not a frequent source on cruise ships, where the predominant mode of infection is believed to be fecal-oral and person to person from individuals who come onto the ships ill and do not report the illness or quarantine themselves in their cabins.

Treatment of Gastroenteritis


Regardless of cause, the principal treatment of gastroenteritis (and of all other diarrheal illnesses) in both children and adults is rehydration, i.e. replenishment of water lost in the stools. Depending on the degree of dehydration, this can be done by giving the person oral rehydration therapy (ORT) or through intravenous delivery. ORT can begin before dehydration occurs, and continue until the person’s urine and stool output return to normal.


Use separate personal items around your home. Avoid sharing eating utensils, glasses and plates. Use separate towels in the bathroom.

Keep your distance. Avoid close contact with anyone who has the virus, if possible.



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