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What is Viral Gastroenteritis?

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  • Written By: D. Jeffress
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 18 November 2016
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Viral gastroenteritis is an infection that causes acute stomach cramps and diarrhea. Also called the stomach flu, a viral gastroenteritis infection can result from ingesting contaminated food or water or coming into direct contact with a contagious person. Symptoms can be uncomfortable, but gastroenteritis does not normally result in serious health complications. It is important to stay hydrated, rest, and contact a doctor if problems get worse or symptoms persist for more than a week.

Many different infectious viruses can cause gastroenteritis, but the most common agents are strains of rotavirus and norovirus. Feces-contaminated food and water can carry the virus straight to the gastrointestinal tract, leading to immediate, severe symptoms. It is also possible to pick up a virus by kissing an infected person or sharing utensils and toiletries. Children and the elderly are at the highest risk of infection due to their weak immune systems, but otherwise healthy adults regularly succumb to the illness as well.

Non-bloody diarrhea is the most prominent symptom of viral gastroenteritis. A person typically experiences several dozen bouts of diarrhea a day for the first two or three days of infection. Abdominal pain, cramping, nausea, and vomiting are common as well, and some people experience headaches, joint pain, and fever. Dehydration is possible with frequent diarrhea and vomiting, which can make an individual feel very weak and possibly cause them to be bedridden.

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Relatively mild bouts of viral gastroenteritis can usually be treated at home with rest and proper fluid intake. Water and sports drinks can help prevent dehydration and replenish lost nutrients from diarrhea and vomiting. In addition, taking over-the-counter pain relievers or anti-inflammatory drugs can help reduce symptoms. Most people start feeling better within about one week of the onset of symptoms.

Emergency medical care should be sought for infants and patients who have severe, persistent symptoms of viral gastroenteritis. Doctors can check for signs of dehydration and supply intravenous fluids when necessary. Blood and stool tests can confirm the presence of a particular virus and help physicians determine the best course of treatment.

There is no medical cure for viral gastroenteritis and medications are generally ineffective at shortening the length of the illness, but certain drugs can be used to make symptoms more manageable during recovery. A severely ill patient may need to stay in the hospital for several days or weeks so doctors can monitor recovery and take preventive quarantine measures against the chances of a gastroenteritis epidemic.

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