Stomach Flu Symptoms & Treatment
Viral gastroenteritis, better known as the stomach flu, is the leading cause of severe diarrhea. The condition causes inflammation of the lining of the stomach, small intestine, and large intestine. Viral gastroenteritis is extremely common and highly contagious.
Viruses that cause gastroenteritis may be found in contaminated food or drinking water or in the stool and vomit of people who are infected. Symptoms of the stomach flu usually develop within 4 to 48 hours after exposure to the virus. The goal of treatment is to prevent dehydration while the virus runs its course.
There are several viruses that cause the stomach flu. Rotavirus is most common among infants and young children, while the norovirus is most common in adults. Norovirus is usually responsible for large outbreaks of viral gastroenteritis, such as those you hear about on cruise ships.
Viruses that cause gastroenteritis are found in the stool and vomit of people who are infected as well as in contaminated food or drinking water. The virus is spread if you do not wash your hands thoroughly after using the bathroom or changing the diaper of an infected infant. The virus can also become airborne through vomit.
Symptoms typically appear within 4 to 48 hours after exposure to the virus.
Symptoms usually last for 1 to 3 days. The main symptoms of the stomach flu include diarrhea and vomiting. You may also experience:
- Abdominal pain
- Fever / chills
- Joint and muscle pain
- Clammy / sweaty skin
- Loss of appetite and weight loss
Dehydration is the most common complication of viral gastroenteritis. Infants, children, and the elderly are most susceptible to becoming dehydrated.
Symptoms of dehydration include:
- Urinating less than usual (in infants, no wet diapers for 3 hours or more)
- Dark-colored urine
- Dry mouth
- Lack of skin turgor, meaning that when your skin is pinched and released, it does not return to its normal position right away
- Sunken eyes or cheeks (or soft spot in the skull of infants)
- Light-headedness or fainting in adults
- Behavior changes and confusion in older adults
- No tears when crying for infants and young children
Your doctor will typically diagnose the stomach flu based on a description of your symptoms. She may test your stool sample to determine if the symptoms you are experiencing are from a virus, bacteria, or parasite.
Most of the time, viral gastroenteritis will resolve itself. The main goal of treatment is to reduce symptoms and prevent dehydration.
Antibiotics are not effective against viral infections but over-the-counter medicines such as Imodium® and Pepto-Bismol® can help relieve symptoms in adults. You should drink plenty of fluids such as fruit juices or sports drinks, which help replenish electrolytes. Avoid caffeine. Oral rehydration solutions such as Pedialyte® are good for infants and children.
People with severe symptoms or dehydration may need to have fluids administered via an IV line.
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