Viral gastroenteritis, often called the “stomach flu” because of its flu-like symptoms, is a common cause of moderate to severe diarrhea and other gastrointestinal issues. Stomach flu isn’t necessarily caused by the influenza virus, but it can be just as disruptive to your daily schedule. The extent to which the stomach flu is contagious will depend upon the exact cause. Since it is viral in origin, it is contagious to a degree, but usually requires direct contact rather than simply inhaling it, as is common with true influenza. Generally, the biggest risk with the stomach flu is dehydration.
Symptoms. The most readily recognizable symptoms of viral gastroenteritis are nausea, diarrhea and vomiting. Stomach flu also may be accompanied by painful stomach cramps or similar abdominal pain, chills, fever, excessive sweating and other similar symptoms. The U.S. National Library of Medicine states, “Symptoms of viral gastroenteritis usually appear within 4 – 48 hours after exposure to the contaminated food or water.” Stomach flu gets its name from the signature symptoms that can closely mimic those of influenza.
Causes. In most cases, viral gastroenteritis comes from using improper hygiene after using the restroom, or from oral contact with something that has been contaminated by similar practices. This is common in children, unwary travelers and some nursing homes. The infection is one of a number of different types of viruses that cause inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract (stomach and intestines); common virus types include the rotavirus and norovirus.
Treatment. In most cases, there is little choice but to let viral gastroenteritis run its course. While some antiviral medications may be effective, the duration is generally short and with no severe complications, as long as you can stay hydrated. Electrolytic fluids such as sports drinks, infant electrolyte formulas, or electrolyte formulas available in some pharmacy or health departments are critical, because you’re losing a lot more than just water through vomiting and diarrhea. While some anti-diarrhea products are available, you should never take these without asking your doctor first — diarrhea is your body’s way of flushing out the infection, and in some cases, preventing it may result in complications.