Understanding Viral Gastroenteritis | 4 min read

Waking up to the unwelcome duo of diarrhoea and abdominal cramps can turn a day upside down. Gastroenteritis, the notorious disruptor of routines, brings an unwelcome pause, leaving one feeling unwell. Viral gastroenteritis, commonly termed stomach flu, is an intestinal infection with symptoms such as watery diarrhoea, stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, and sometimes fever.

What causes viral gastroenteritis?

The primary pathways to contracting viral gastroenteritis involve contact with infected individuals and consuming contaminated food or water. While generally manageable for healthy individuals, it poses severe risks for infants, older adults, and those with weakened immune systems.

Multiple viruses contribute to gastroenteritis, including noroviruses and rotavirus. Norovirus spreads through contaminated sources, be it food, water, or person-to-person contact. In contrast, rotavirus predominantly affects children and is transmitted through contact with contaminated objects.


Identifying and managing symptoms

Despite being referred to as stomach flu, gastroenteritis differs from influenza, affecting the digestive tract.

What are the symptoms?

  • Watery diarrhoea
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Stomach cramps / abdominal pain
  • Occasional muscle aches
  • Headaches
  • Low-grade fever

Symptoms usually appear 1-3 days post-infection and may persist up to 14 days. Due to symptom similarities, distinguishing viral diarrhoea from bacterial or parasitic causes is crucial for medical intervention. It is thus advisable to see your doctor to get an accurate diagnosis.

When to consult?

For adults, consulting a healthcare provider is crucial if:

  • Vomiting lasts more than two days.
  • Diarrhoea lasts more than several days.
  • Diarrhoea turns bloody.
  • Fever is more than 39 degrees Celsius or higher.
  • You get lightheaded or faint when you stand.
  • Confusion develops.
  • Abdominal pain develops.

In high-risk scenarios, immediate medical attention is warranted when facing challenges like:

  • An inability to retain liquids for 24 hours.
  • Vomiting blood
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Signs of dehydration

Prevention, Risk Factors, and Vulnerable Groups

Preventing viral gastroenteritis is paramount, especially given the absence of a specific treatment. Risks are heightened when consuming contaminated food or water, sharing utensils, or close contact with infected individuals.

Vulnerable groups are more susceptible to catching the virus. They include young children, older adults, schoolchildren in close contact, and those with weakened immune systems.

Managing Complications and Taking Proactive Measures

Dehydration emerges as a common complication, particularly in vulnerable groups. Prompt medical intervention is essential to prevent severe outcomes. Severe dehydration can necessitate hospitalisation. Early intervention and preventive measures play a crucial role in avoiding complications.

Embracing Preventive Measures

Taking proactive steps can significantly reduce the risk of contracting and spreading viral gastroenteritis.

Practices include:

  • Meticulous handwashing: Washing your hands often with soap and water is the most effective way to stop the spread of these viruses to others. If you can’t wash your hands, use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser, which can reduce germs.
  • Refraining from sharing personal items.
  • Ensuring safe food preparation.
  • Maintaining distance from infected individuals.
  • Exercising caution when travelling.
  • To prevent others from getting sick, disinfect contaminated surfaces immediately after someone vomits or has diarrhoea.
  • Wear disposable gloves and use a bleach-based household cleanser or 2 cups / 0.5 litre of bleach in 3.8 litres of water to disinfect surfaces.
  • Although you may feel better after a day or two, you’re contagious for a few days after you recover. The virus can remain in your stool for up to two weeks or more after recovery.

Adhering to safety measures becomes crucial when travelling to prevent gastroenteritis caused by contaminated food or water.

Practical Travel Tips:

  • Opt for sealed bottled water.
  • Avoid ice cubes.
  • Use bottled water for oral hygiene.
  • Refrain from raw or undercooked food.
  • Take precautions when handling laundry.

If you Suspect You Have Gastroenteritis:

  • Hydrate wisely. Take small sips of a sports drink or water to prevent dehydration. Avoid consuming fluids rapidly, as this may exacerbate nausea and vomiting. Instead, take frequent small sips over a couple of hours rather than drinking a large amount all at once.
  • Monitor urination. Ensure regular intervals of urination and aim for light and clear urine. Infrequent passing of dark urine indicates dehydration. Dizziness and light-headedness also signal dehydration. If these symptoms arise and fluid intake is challenging, seek medical attention promptly.
  • Gradual reintroduction to eating. If nausea is present, consider consuming small, frequent amounts of food. Alternatively, start with bland and easily digestible options such as soda crackers, toast, gelatine, bananas, applesauce, rice, and chicken. Stop eating if nausea recurs. Avoid milk, dairy products, caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, and highly seasoned or fatty foods for a few days.
  • Prioritise rest. Gastroenteritis and dehydration can leave you feeling weak and fatigued. Ensure you get ample rest to support your recovery process.

Individuals can effectively manage and minimise risks associated with this intestinal infection by understanding the causes, symptoms, and preventive measures surrounding viral gastroenteritis. For persistent or worsening symptoms, seeking prompt medical attention remains imperative.


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