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What to know about gastroenteritis

It is an intestinal infection marked by watery diarrhoea, abdominal cramps, nausea or vomiting, and sometimes fever.

The most common way to develop viral gastroenteritis — often called stomach flu — is through contact with an infected person or by ingesting contaminated food or water. If you’re otherwise healthy, you’ll likely recover without complications. But for infants, older adults and people with compromised immune systems, viral gastroenteritis can be deadly.

There’s no effective treatment for viral gastroenteritis, so prevention is key. In addition to avoiding food and water that may be contaminated, thorough and frequent hand-washings are your best defense.

Symptoms

Although it’s commonly called stomach flu, gastroenteritis isn’t the same as influenza. Real flu (influenza) affects only your respiratory system — your nose, throat and lungs. Gastroenteritis,on the other hand, attacks your intestines, causing signs and symptoms, such as: watery, usually non-bloody diarrhoea — bloody diarrhoea usually means you have a different, more severe infection. Abdominal cramps and pain, nausea, vomiting or both occasional muscle aches or headache and low-grade fever.

Depending on the cause, viral gastroenteritis symptoms may appear within one to three days after you’re infected and can range from mild to severe. Symptoms usually last just a day or two, but occasionally they may persist as long as 10 days.

Because the symptoms are similar, it’s easy to confuse viral diarrhoea with diarrhoea caused by bacteria, such as Clostridium difficile, salmonella and E. coli, or parasites, such as giardia.

Causes

You’re most likely to contract viral gastroenteritis when you eat or drink contaminated food or water, or if you share utensils, towels or food with someone who’s infected.

A number of viruses can cause gastroenteritis, including:

Noroviruses: Both children and adults are affected by noroviruses, the most common cause of foodborne illness worldwide. Norovirus infection can sweep through families and communities. It’s especially likely to spread among people in confined spaces. In most cases, you pick up the virus from contaminated food or water, although person-to-person transmission also is possible.

Rotavirus: Worldwide, this is the most common cause of viral gastroenteritis in children, who are usually infected when they put their fingers or other objects contaminated with the virus into their mouths. The infection is most severe in infants and young children. Adults infected with rotavirus may not have symptoms, but can still spread the illness — of particular concern in institutional settings because infected adults unknowingly can pass the virus to others. A vaccine against viral gastroenteritis is available in some countries, including the United States, and appears to be effective in preventing the infection.

Some shellfish, especially raw or undercooked oysters, also can make you sick. Although contaminated drinking water is a cause of viral diarrhoea, in many cases the virus is passed through the faecal-oral route — that is, someone with a virus handles food you eat without washing his or her hands after using the toilet.

  • Source: Mayoclinic.com
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