Gastroenteritis is a common condition encountered by almost everyone. However, despite it being common, there is a widespread lack of awareness regarding its common causes, especially its treatment. This article is aimed at giving the general public a better understanding of this condition and its treatment.
Gastroenteritis, commonly called the tummy flu or upset stomach, is the inflammation of the gut. Viruses usually cause it, but they can also be caused by bacteria and rarely by parasites, antibiotics, and other medications.
What Are the Organisms That Cause Gastroenteritis?
Common viruses that cause gastroenteritis are rotavirus and norovirus. The most common bacteria that cause this disease are E.coli, Staphylococcus, Salmonella, Bacillus, and Enterococci.
Acute Gastroenteritis: It is a sudden onset of diarrhea (watery stools) due to a virus or bacteria infection.
Chronic Gastroenteritis: It is long-term diarrhea (watery stools) due to infection by a virus or bacteria.
Despite the cause, the symptoms are the same.
Diarrhea (loose, watery stools).
Nausea and vomiting.
Other symptoms can be fever, body aches, and lethargy.
The common symptom of gastroenteritis is diarrhea with vomiting. The vomiting usually starts before diarrhea and subsides after one or two days. Diarrhea lasts longer, usually between 2 and 10 days. Diarrhea that lasts longer than 3 weeks is called chronic diarrhea. In immune deficiency patients, the impaired body defenses can considerably lengthen the duration of gastroenteritis. Diarrhea can even last for even weeks or months when caused by parasites like amoeba and lamblia.
How long the symptoms ultimately persist depends on the incubation period on the respective pathogen. If salmonella is the cause, the duration of the gastrointestinal infection is usually only a few days. Typical viral gastroenteritis is also often severe but lasts only for a relatively short time. Three days after the beginning of a norovirus or rotavirus infection, digestion usually returns to normal. The gastrointestinal flu caused by Campylobacter usually lasts a little longer, and the symptoms typically last 4 to 5 days, but occasionally up to 2 weeks.
Viral gastroenteritis will spread from person to person through contact with an infected person’s stool or vomit.
If a person has viral gastroenteritis, the viruses will be present in their stools and vomit. They may spread the virus from their stool or vomit, mainly if they do not wash their hands appropriately after using the washroom or if they:
Touch surfaces or objects used by another person.
Prepare or serve food to other people.
Shake hands or touch another person.
Infected people who are asymptomatic can also spread viruses. For example, norovirus may be present in your stool before you have signs and up to two weeks after recovery. Therefore, very contagious norovirus can spread quickly from person to person. It can live for months on surfaces like countertops and changing tables. Especially when an infected person vomits, the virus can become airborne and settle on surfaces or another person.
Viral gastroenteritis may spread in households, daycare centers, schools, nursing homes, cruise ships, restaurants, and other places where people assemble in groups.
Suppose water gets contaminated with a virus when it comes into contact with the stools of infected people. These contaminated water can spread the virus through foods or drinks to people who consume these foods or beverages. In addition, people who swim in contaminated water may also become infected.
The most dangerous consequence of gastroenteritis is dehydration caused by a large amount of fluid loss during diarrhea and vomiting. This can be life-threatening and even fatal in young children. Gastroenteritis is one of the most common causes of death among children below 5 years of age in developing countries due to severe dehydration and failure of timely rehydration therapy. Look out for signs of dehydration which include extreme thirst, loss of skin turgor, dry mouth, lips, eyes, lethargy, dizziness, and decreased urine.
The incubation period indicates the time-lapse between acquiring the infection and the appearance of the first symptoms. The incubation period for gastroenteritis is very short, which is only a few hours. Some pathogens can last for days or weeks. Usually, the incubation period for gastrointestinal flu is between 1 and 7 days, but there is a different period for each pathogen:
Norovirus and rotavirus: 10 to 50 hours.
Salmonella: 5 to 72 hours.
EHEC (Escherichia coli): usually three to four days
Campylobacter: two to five days.
Shigella (bacterial dysentery): one to four days
Entamoeba histolytica (amoebic dysentery): one to four weeks
Food poisoning: one to six hours (Staphylococcus aureus), eight to 16 hours (Clostridium perfringens)
Treatment of gastroenteritis mainly aims at the prevention of dehydration. However, when it is due to viral infection, antibiotics will not work in such cases.
Plenty of oral fluid intake is at the heart of the therapy.
Oral rehydration solutions (ORS), available over the counter, should be consumed to replace the electrolytes and the minerals.
Fruit juices and sports drinks will also help with dehydration.
Viral infections will mostly resolve on their own within 3-5 days. However, the illness that lasts longer and is associated with high-grade fever, severe dehydration, and blood in stools must be sorted out with immediate medical attention. Bacterial or parasitic infections may require antibiotic or antihelminthic therapy. Severe dehydration may require admission and intravenous fluid replacement.
Your stomach and bowel need some rest. Therefore you should not eat, but you can drink little amounts of clear liquids, like water or apple juice. Drinking too much during the early period of your illness may lead to more vomiting.
Slowly start eating when you stop vomiting for at least 12 hours. Soda crackers, applesauce, bananas, or other soft foods are advisable to eat at first.
Rest is very important to treat the stomach flu.
Ibuprofen or Acetaminophen can be used to relieve your fever or muscle aches.
Consult with your physician if you have lost many body fluids (dehydration).
Gastroenteritis can be prevented by taking the following measures:
Handwashing with soap before eating food and after using the toilet.
Avoid eating stale or reheated food.
Avoid eating undercooked food.
Wash fruits and vegetables before eating.
A rotavirus vaccine is available for young children, which gives immunity against the virus and prevents rotavirus infection.
Blood in vomit or stool.
Severe abdominal pain.
Dehydration due to loss of water.
Stomach flu does not persist for a long time in children or adults. It usually clears up within 2 to 8 days, depending upon the virus that causes it. Usually, it lasts for about 1 to 2 days, but symptoms may linger up to ten days.
To get rid of tummy flu you can:
- Drink plenty of fluids, oral rehydration solutions, and juices.
- Eat soft and bland foods like rice and bananas.
- Consume fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can if you can tolerate them.
- Avoid foods with lots of fat and sugar, which can aggravate the symptoms.
Over-the-counter (OTC) medications like Loperamide can be given to adults under 65 if they do not have a fever and no blood in stools to stop diarrhea, and it should not be given in adults over age 65 or patients with a fever or blood in the stool without the doctor's opinion. Children should not be given any medicines to stop diarrhea. Patients who have severe dehydration might require intravenous (IV) fluids.
Stomach bug symptoms are more at night due to their circadian rhythm (inherent cycle of about 24 hours, helps to control various biological processes). An increase in the immune system activity at night releases infection-fighting chemicals. These chemicals can cause inflammation that make you feel more acute as you battle your flu.
Tamiflu will reduce symptoms like fever, stuffy nose, sore throat, and tiredness, which many over-the-counter medications do to the body. However, the most efficiency is received if the treatment is started within 48 hours after the appearance of the symptoms.
Coconut water is a low-sugar option that is good for drinking if you have the stomach flu. Also, drinking plenty of water and juices like apple juice, ginger juice with cinnamon and honey, etc., is suitable for treating stomach flu.
Viral stomach flu can quickly spread from person to person by contacting tiny, invisible particles from a sick person's stool or vomit. When infected, you can remain contagious for up to two weeks after you have recovered.
To avoid getting stomach flu from the infected family members, wash your hands properly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, soon after using the bathroom, or changing diapers, and before eating or handling food.
- Clean the contaminated surfaces which may contain the flu virus.
- Remove any contaminated trash immediately.
- Use separate personal items to prevent the spread of the flu.
To get rid of stomach bug quickly:
- Drink plenty of fluids.
- Get lots of rest.
- Try eating the foods recommended by the doctor.
- Soothe your stomach with some ginger.
- Try some anti-diarrheal medications.
- Take Tylenol for stomach cramps.
Tamiflu (Oseltamivir Phosphate) is an antiviral drug that reduces the flu symptoms by attacking the flu virus and stops it from multiplying in your body. Tamiflu can sometimes prevent you from getting the flu if you take it before you are sick.
To treat the stomach virus in toddlers, you can give plenty of fluids, such as water, broth, or Pedialyte, to avoid dehydration. You can also give:
- Caraway tea.
- Rice water.
It usually takes about 30 minutes after exposure to the organism or the toxin to become gastroenteritis. But most of the symptoms develop 12 to 72 hours after exposure. Acute infectious gastroenteritis usually settles within two weeks, but it can last up to several weeks in severe cases.
If you have gastroenteritis, you should avoid eating:
- Fried foods.
- Spicy foods.
- Sugary foods and drinks.
- Dairy products.
Bacterial gastroenteritis will often go away on its own without any treatment. However, if there is vomiting and diarrhea, it can cause dehydration, so it is essential to stay hydrated.
Gastroenteritis is an illness that gets triggered by the infection and inflammation of the digestive system. It can cause abdominal cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea. However, in many cases, it will heal by itself within a few days.
The difference between food poisoning and stomach virus are:
- A virus causes the stomach flu, but bacteria, viruses, or other parasites cause food poisoning.
- The stomach flu can last for days, but food poisoning will usually take only one day.
- Viral stomach flu has an incubation period of 24 to 48 hours after exposure to the virus, whereas food poisoning will be much faster at 2 to 6 hours after eating the contaminated food.
Last reviewed at:
08 Jun 2022 - 4 min read
Query: Hello doctor, I am a 24 year old female. What could be the cause of a severe stomach pain that happens after eating nuts, seeds, and things with oil in them? By oil, I mean even olive oil and not just greasy foods. This reaction has been happening for a year or so, and I have avoided these foods as ... Read Full »
Query: Hello doctor, My 20 months old daughter did not pee last week for above 24 hours, the next day she did pee, but also vomited. On the same day, she was having a fever of 102 F, so we went to the pediatrician. He gave Vomitab, Calpol, and an antibiotic injection. From the past three days, the urine ou... Read Full »
Query: Hi doctor, I am having a slightly upset stomach with bloating for the past four months. I thought I had a bug. Two weeks later, it seemed much better. However, my bowel movements did not return to normal. I had mostly constipation for about a month (even though my stomach did not feel as upset anym... Read Full »
Most Popular Articles
Do you have a question on Diarrhea or Gastroenteritis?Ask a Doctor Online