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(Stomach Flu)

Gastroenteritis Overview

Gastroenteritis is a condition that causes irritation and inflammation of the stomach and intestines (the gastrointestinal tract).

The most common symptoms of gastroenteritis are

Many people also refer to gastroenteritis as "stomach flu." This can sometimes be confusing because influenza (flu) symptoms include

  • headache,
  • muscle aches and pains, and
  • respiratory symptoms, but influenza does not involve the gastrointestinal tract.

The term stomach flu presumes a viral infection, even though there may be other causes of infection.

Viral infections are the most common cause of gastroenteritis; but bacteria, parasites, and food-borne illnesses (such as from shellfish that has been contaminated by sewage or from eating raw or undercooked shellfish from contaminated water) can also be the offending agents. Many people who experience vomiting and diarrhea that develops from these types of infections or irritations think they have "food poisoning," when they actually may have a food-borne illness.

Travelers to foreign countries may experience "traveler's diarrhea" from contaminated food and unclean water.

The severity of infectious gastroenteritis depends on the immune system's ability to resist the infection. Electrolytes (these include essential elements of sodium and potassium) may be lost as the affected individual vomits and experiences diarrhea.

Most people recover easily from a short episode of vomiting and diarrhea by drinking fluids and gradually progressing to a normal diet. But for others, such as infants and the elderly, the loss of bodily fluid with gastroenteritis can cause dehydration, which is a life-threatening illness unless the condition is treated and fluids are restored.

The most recent data from the CDC, show that deaths from gastroenteritis have increased dramatically. In 2007, 17,000 people died from gastroenteritis, overwhelmingly, these people were older and the most common infections were Clostridium difficile and norovirus.

Gastroenteritis Causes

Patient Comments

Gastroenteritis has many causes. Viruses and bacteria are the most common.

Viruses and bacteria are very contagious and can spread through the consumption contaminated food or water. In up to 50% of diarrheal outbreaks, no specific agent is found. The infection can spread from person to person because of improper handwashing following a bowel movement or handling a soiled diaper.

Gastroenteritis caused by viruses may last one to two days. However, some bacterial cases can continue for a longer period of time.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 2/15/2013

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Read What Your Physician is Reading on Medscape

Gastroenteritis »

Gastroenteritis is a nonspecific term for various pathologic states of the gastrointestinal tract.

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