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Gastroenteritis
(Stomach Flu)

Facts and Definition of Gastroenteritis (Stomach Flu)

  • Gastroenteritis, commonly referred to as the "stomach flu, 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.
    • 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 consuming 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 chemicals like sodium, potassium and chloride) may be lost in vomit and diarrhea fluid.
  • Most people recover easily from a short episode of vomiting and diarrhea by drinking clear fluids to replace the fluid that was lost and then gradually progressing to a normal diet. But for others, especially infants and the elderly, the loss of bodily fluid with gastroenteritis can cause dehydration, which can be a life-threatening illness unless it is treated and fluids in the body are replaced.
  • 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.
  • There were an estimated 179 million cases of gastroenteritis in the United States in 2010 and more than 80% of those who were ill never sought medical care. Only 1% required hospital admission.

Is the Stomach Flu (Gastroenteritis) Contagious?

Viruses and bacteria can be contagious and can spread through the consumption of contaminated food or water. In up to 50% of diarrheal outbreaks, no specific agent is found.

How Do You Get the Stomach Flu (Gastroenteritis)?

Gastroenteritis or the stomach flu can spread from person to person because of improper hand-washing following a bowel movement or handling a soiled diaper.

How Long Does the Stomach Flu (Gastroenteritis) Last?

Gastroenteritis caused by viruses may last one to two days. However, some bacterial cases can continue for months.

Are Stomach Flu and Food Poisoning the Same Thing?

  • Stomach flu (gastroenteritis) is almost always caused by an infection. The infection can enter the body in different ways. Drinking contaminated water is a common cause and sometimes the infection may enter the body because of poor personal hygiene (not washing your hands after using the toilet).
  • Food poisoning may be one cause of gastroenteritis, and that infection may be caused by a bacteria, virus, or parasite. Depending on the circumstances, food may be contaminated by how long it has been stored, cleaned, prepared, and how long it has been left out to be served.

If there is an outbreak in which many people have the signs and symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea, and the type of infection is found, health agencies try to find the source of the infection to prevent further illnesses and outbreaks. In some instances, it may be related to only one restaurant or cruise ship, but for other infectious outbreaks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has to do significant detective work to find the root cause that infected the food chain.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 8/31/2017

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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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