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Stomach Flu or Gastroenteritis: Causes, Symptoms And Treatment

stomach flu or gastroenteritis

Stomach flu, also known as gastroenteritis, is a common illness around the world. It is defined as the inflammation of the mucous membranes of the gastrointestinal tract (stomach and intestine). Characterized by diarrhea and vomiting, stomach flu affects 3 to 5 billion children each year and accounts for 1.5 to 2.5 million deaths per year reveals a study published in the Journal Clinical and Experimental Gastroenterology[1].

Although it is common in children, even adults can suffer from stomach flu. However, most people do not know what causes stomach flu, how long does stomach flu last and how do you treat the stomach flu. So to help you get a clear understanding about the gastroenteritis, we have answered some of the frequently asked questions (FAQs) on stomach flu.

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What causes stomach flu?

Viruses are the most common causes of gastroenteritis which are responsible for around 70% of cases of acute gastroenteritis in kids. Although there are more than 20 different types of viruses that can cause stomach flu, rotavirus is one of the common virus. It accounts for around 30% to 70% of all hospitalizations of acute gastroenteritis in children aged 6 months to 2 years[1]. Rotavirus infection can occur all throughout the year, however, it peaks during winters. The other common viruses that can cause stomach flu include adenovirus, calicivirus, and astrovirus.

Although stomach flu is usually caused by viruses, even bacteria and parasites can cause the similar condition. Bacterial infection accounts for 10% to 20% of all the cases of acute gastroenteritis. The common bacteria that cause stomach flu include Salmonella, Shigella, Yersinia, etc and the protozoan species that cause the infection include Giardia lamblia, Cryptosporidium, and Entamoeba histolytica.  

How does the stomach flu spread?

It is a highly infectious condition which can spread through contaminated food or water or through close contact with the people suffering from the condition. It is easy for the virus to spread in close groups such as childcare facilities, schools, nursing homes, and cruise ships. Some of the common modes of transmission of the virus include:

-Improper handling of food, especially by food vendors and handlers

-Not washing your hands properly

-Water contaminated by sewage

-Consumption of raw or contaminated foods

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What are the signs and symptoms of stomach flu?

Usually, the symptoms of viral gastroenteritis begin after a day or two post infection and may last around three days. If stomach flu is caused by bacteria or parasite, the symptoms might last longer.

The common signs and symptoms of stomach flu include:

Diarrhea,

Nausea and vomiting,

Headache,

Fever,

Chills,

Abdominal pain,

Loss of appetite

Rotavirus can affect adults, too, but the symptoms are usually milder. The symptoms might be severe in high-risk individuals such as children under five years of age, older individuals, and people with a compromised immune system.

When to go to a doctor for stomach flu?

Stomach flu is often mistaken for other health problems such as food intolerance (lactose intolerance), inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease, and irritable bowel syndrome. Certain medications such as antibiotics can also cause symptoms that closely resemble viral gastroenteritis. Hence, it is advised that if the symptoms do not get better within two to three days or if the symptoms start getting worse, it is wise to consult a doctor.

Gastroenteritis if left untreated can lead to serious health complications that range from nutritional deficiency and muscle weakness to dehydration.

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How do you treat the stomach flu?

The treatment of stomach flu is based on the symptoms. The main goal of treatment is to prevent dehydration and ensure proper fluid and electrolyte balance in the body. Hence, it is important to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids and taking enough rest. For kids, oral rehydration solutions (ORS) might be helpful to ease the stomach woes along with replenishing the lost electrolytes and fluids. In severe cases, hospitalization and intravenous fluids might be needed as per the doctor’s advice.

Medicines such as antiemetics might be recommended by your doctor to control nausea and vomiting. If you experience abdominal pain, then painkillers might be prescribed. Avoid use of antibiotics as in most cases stomach flu is caused by viruses and use of antibiotics might provide no relief. Do not self-medicate and always consult your doctor before taking any medicines (including over the counter meds).

What to eat and what to avoid is one of the common questions that most people with stomach flu ask. Well, doctors recommend a highly nutritious and balanced diet. It is usually advised to opt for bland food such as rice, potatoes, toast, and bananas as it is not only easy to digest but also help you to fight stomach upset. Do avoid foods that might cause further stomach upset such as foods rich in salt, sugar and fats, caffeine, and dairy products.

(The article is reviewed by Dr. Lalit Kanodia, General Physician)

Recommended Reads:

Stomach Ache: When To See A Doctor?

5 Common Causes Of Indigestion

References:

1. Chow CM, Leung AK, Hon KL. Acute gastroenteritis: from guidelines to real life. Clin Exp Gastroenterol. 2010;3:97-112.

2. Stuempfig ND, Seroy J. Gastroenteritis, Viral. [Updated 2018 Oct 27]. In: StatPearls. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2018 Jan.

3. Lee RM, Lessler J, Lee RA, Rudolph KE, Reich NG, Perl TM, Cummings DA. Incubation periods of viral gastroenteritis: a systematic review. BMC Infect Dis. 2013 Sep 25;13:446.

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