Viral gastroenteritis, or stomach flu, occurs when a virus attacks the stomach, small intestines, and large intestines, resulting in inflammation and a host of uncomfortable symptoms. Many people mistakenly think that stomach flu is caused by the influenza virus. Instead, it is caused by several viruses, including the adenovirus, astrovirus, norovirus, and rotavirus.
- Norovirus – The most common virus that causes viral gastroenteritis is Norovirus. Each year norovirus causes between 19 and 21 million cases of viral gastroenteritis in the United States, according to the CDC. This virus is spread by close contact with an individual with the virus, eating contaminated foods, or touching contaminated surfaces and touching one’s mouth. The most common symptoms are nausea, body aches, fever, and diarrhea.
- Rotavirus – Rotavirus is especially common in children because they are more likely to put a contaminated object in their mouth or touch a contaminated object and put their fingers in their mouth. Infants and children typically experience the worse symptoms. This virus causes vomiting, watery diarrhea, and loss of appetite.
- Adenovirus can affect individuals of any age. This viral infection is typically spread through the air (coughing or sneezing), coming in contact with a contaminated object, or an individual with the virus. The most common symptoms of adenovirus include runny nose, coughing, sore throat, pink eye, fever, and vomiting.
- Astrovirus commonly affects children. This virus is passed through close contact, food, or touching a contaminated surface. The most common symptoms of astrovirus are diarrhea, mild dehydration, stomach pain, and headache.
Viral gastroenteritis is highly contagious. There are several different ways the virus can be spread, including:
- Close contact with an individual with the virus (i.e. eating or drinking after an individual, kissing, or other types of close contact)
- Coming in contact with a contaminated surface and touching your mouth
- Eating or drinking contaminated foods
- Foods that have been handled by an individual with gastroenteritis
- Foods that have come in contact with raw sewage
Risk Factors for Viral Gastroenteritis
Viral gastroenteritis affects individuals of every race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, and age; however, certain individuals are at an increased risk of viral gastroenteritis. These individuals include:
- Close Quarters – Schoolchildren, those living in a dormitory, or church can pass the illness through their environment, thus increasing the risk of infection.
- Older Adults – The elderly, particularly those in a nursing home, are at an increased risk of a viral infection. As someone ages, their immune system no longer functions as well as it once did. Furthermore, individuals in a nursing home will come in close contact with others who may pass the virus on.
- Weak Immune System – If your immune system is compromised because of AIDS/HIV, cancer therapy (chemotherapy or radiation), or other medical condition, you are at an increased risk of becoming ill.
- Young Children – Elementary aged children and younger are at an increased risk of developing viral gastroenteritis because their immune system is not fully developed.
Symptoms of Viral Gastroenteritis
Viral gastroenteritis symptoms occur within a day or two of coming in contact with an individual with the infection or food/drink that has been contaminated. The symptoms typically last up to ten days, depending on which virus caused your infections. The symptoms of this gastrointestinal viral infection include:
- Abdominal Cramping/Pain – The inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract along with vomiting, diarrhea, and muscle aches can cause abdominal pain or abdominal cramping.
- Diarrhea – Watery diarrhea is often the most common symptom of this infection. Diarrhea can be constant, or it can come and go throughout your infection.
- Fever – When you are dealing with a viral infection that attacks the GI system, a low-grade fever is common.
- Headache – Individuals who have viral gastroenteritis may experience a nagging headache that doesn’t respond to medication. This headache is often caused by dehydration and a low-grade fever.
- Muscle Aches – Muscle aches are common with viral infections. Muscle aches can be caused by dehydration, inflammation, and fever.
- Nausea – Another symptom that plagues sufferers is nausea. The inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract can slow down digestion, which can cause nausea.
- Vomiting – Many individuals will experience unrelenting vomiting for days when they have come in contact with a virus that attacks the gastrointestinal tract.
The main complication of viral gastroenteritis is dehydration. Dehydration occurs when you have a loss of fluid, salts, and minerals from the body. One of the best ways to avoid dehydration is to try to replace your fluids and electrolytes lost from vomiting and diarrhea. Electrolyte infused drinks will help to combat dehydration and replace lost minerals.
Individuals with a weakened immune system, the elderly, and young children are at an increased risk of becoming severely dehydrated. When this occurs, hospitalization may be necessary so lost fluids can be replaced intravenously. Although rare, dehydration can lead to death if not treated.
Protect Against Stomach Flu
There are several things you can do to decrease your risk of stomach flu. Following these suggestions is especially important if someone in your home has been diagnosed with this GI illness. Protect yourself by:
- Handwashing – One of the most important things you can do to protect against a stomach flu illness is to wash your hands frequently. Use warm water, plenty of soap, and rub your hands vigorously for 20 seconds, taking care to scrub under fingernails, around cuticles, between fingers, and in the creases of your hands. If you cannot use water and soap, hand sanitizer should be used.
- Disinfecting – If someone in your home is experiencing the symptoms of gastroenteritis, common touch surfaces should be disinfected often. You should disinfect your doorknobs, faucet handles, toilets, telephones, refrigerator handles, and remote controls multiple times per day.
- Laundering – Soiled items of clothing should be immediately washed in the hottest wash possible. Remember to wash your hands as soon as you load the clothes in your washing machine to avoid cross contamination.
- Avoidance – Individuals who have viral gastroenteritis should not prepare food or drink until 48 hours after all symptoms have resolved. You should also avoid close contact with any individual who has the virus.
- Vaccination – There is an effective vaccine that protects against rotavirus, which is one of the leading causes of gastroenteritis. This vaccine is typically given during the first year of life and is effective at minimizing symptoms.
- Travel – When you are traveling to a foreign country, you are at a greater risk of contracting viral gastroenteritis. There are several things you can do to minimize your risk including drinking and brushing your teeth with bottled water, avoiding raw or undercooked foods, and avoiding ice in your drinks.
Treating Viral Gastroenteritis or Stomach Flu
Viral gastroenteritis causes a plethora of symptoms, including vomiting, diarrhea, fever, cramping, and headaches. Our functional medicine providers specialize in digestive disorders and use conventional and traditional medicine practices to help improve your health, reduce symptoms and the risk of dehydration, and help you overcome a GI infection quickly. Because this is a viral infection, antibiotics will not help. Your practitioner will also recommend certain foods and warn against other types of foods while dealing with a GI viral infection.
- Dehydration – Functional medicine providers focus on the prevention of dehydration when treating viral gastroenteritis. Over the counter rehydration solutions are used to replace the essential fluids and electrolytes that are commonly lost with vomiting and diarrhea.
- Diet – Eating a bland diet can help ease nausea and provide the body with the nutrients that it needs. The BRAT (bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast) diet is often recommended during the early stages of the viral illness. Once you begin to recover, you can add other bland foods. Avoid sugary, high-fat foods while you are sick.
- Rest – One of the best things you can do when suffering from a viral infection is to get plenty of rest. When you are at rest, your body will be able to better fight the infection and reduce the risk of weakness and tiredness.
- Heat Therapy – A heating pad can help relieve stomach cramps. Avoid leaving a heating pad on your skin for too long. We recommend limiting usage to no more than 15 minutes at a time.
- Probiotics – Viral gastroenteritis can cause the bacteria in your digestive tract to become imbalanced. Consuming probiotic-rich foods like yogurt and taking a probiotic supplement can rebalance the flora in your GI system and relieve diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting.
- Herbs – Ginger and mint can help soothe your upset stomach and ease nausea.