Viral gastroenteritis is an intestinal infection marked by watery diarrhea, abdominal cramps, nausea or vomiting, and sometimes fever.
The most common way to develop viral gastroenteritis — often called stomach flu —is through contact with an infected person or by ingesting contaminated food or water. If you’re otherwise healthy, you’ll likely recover without complications. But for infants, older adults and people with compromised immune systems, viral gastroenteritis can be deadly.
Although it’s commonly called stomach flu, gastroenteritis isn’t the same as influenza. Real flu (influenza) affects only your respiratory system — your nose, throat and lungs. Gastroenteritis, on the other hand, attacks your intestines, causing signs and symptoms, such as:
- Watery, usually nonbloody diarrhea — bloody diarrhea usually means you have a different, more severe infection
- Abdominal cramps and pain
- Nausea, vomiting or both
- Occasional muscle aches or headache
- Low-grade fever
When to see a doctor
If you’re an adult, call your doctor if:
- You’re not able to keep liquids down for 24 hours
- You’ve been vomiting for more than two days
- You’re vomiting blood
- You’re dehydrated — signs of dehydration include excessive thirst, dry mouth, deep yellow urine or little or no urine, and severe weakness, dizziness or lightheadedness
- You notice blood in your bowel movements
- You have a fever above 104 F (40 C)
For infants and children
See your doctor right away if your child:
- Has a fever of 102 F (38.9 C) or higher
- Seems lethargic or very irritable
- Is in a lot of discomfort or pain
- Has bloody diarrhea
- Seems dehydrated — watch for signs of dehydration in sick infants and children by comparing how much they drink and urinate with how much is normal for them
The best way to prevent the spread of intestinal infections is to follow these precautions:
- Get your child vaccinated. Given to children in the first year of life, the vaccine appears to be effective in preventing severe symptoms of this illness.
- Wash your hands thoroughly. And make sure your children do, too. If your children are older, teach them to wash their hands, especially after using the toilet. It’s best to use warm water and soap and to rub hands vigorously for at least 20 seconds, remembering to wash around cuticles, beneath fingernails and in the creases of the hands. Then rinse thoroughly. Carry sanitizing wipes and hand sanitizer for times when soap and water aren’t available.
- Use separate personal items around your home. Avoid sharing eating utensils, drinking glasses and plates. Use separate towels in the bathroom.
- Keep your distance. Avoid close contact with anyone who has the virus, if possible.