Gastroenteritis (commonly called the “stomach flu”) is an inflammation of the lining of the stomach and intestines. Its main symptoms are vomiting and diarrhea. It is highly contagious and extremely common, especially among children. Gastroenteritis generally lasts one to three days, but full recovery often takes a bit longer.
Viral or bacterial?
Gastroenteritis is most often caused by viruses – the rotavirus and the adenovirus – which primarily affect very young children. These infectious micro-organisms are passed on mainly by the oral-fecal route, in other words when contaminated fecal particles find their way into the oral cavity of a person. Transmission can occur directly from one person to another or indirectly through contaminated water, food or objects.
In adults and older children, gastroenteritis is often caused by the Norwalk virus. Unlike other types of virus that spread during specific times of year and cause epidemics, the Norwalk virus can spread at any time.
Gastroenteritis can also be caused by bacteria. For example, when a person eats contaminated food, the bacteria present can cause food poisoning, which in turn often leads to gastroenteritis.
Symptoms and complications of gastroenteritis
Gastroenteritis involves many variable symptoms, including:
- Soft, watery stool
- Abdominal cramps
- Loss of appetite
- General malaise
Symptoms generally develop one to three days after contact with the virus. In most cases, the person will start to recover after a few days. Sometimes, however, symptoms can last more than a week. That’s when it’s best to see a doctor. Young children are particularly vulnerable to complications.
Dehydration is the most common and worrisome complication. It is caused by the loss of fluids and electrolytes resulting from diarrhea, vomiting and fever. The problem can be serious, which is why seeing a doctor is important, particularly for at-risk individuals. Fortunately, dehydration is preventable.
Frequent, proper hand washing is the best way to avoid the spread of germs responsible for gastroenteritis.
You should also avoid all contact with people who have contracted the disease. Adults suffering from the illness should stay home from work and, likewise, infected children should not go to school or daycare, since they can easily spread the disease to others.
There is no cure for gastroenteritis. You just need to wait out the symptoms. The most important thing you can do is to prevent dehydration. Oral rehydration solutions in various flavours are available at the pharmacy. They come as ready-made formulas or powdered products to be mixed with water. Some people like to make their own rehydration formula. If you decide to do this, keep in mind that you need to follow a very specific recipe to make sure you have the right balance of electrolytes and sugar. Your pharmacist can give you information about homemade formulas.
Remember that drinking only plain water is a bad idea and drinking soft drinks, juice or other sugary beverages is even worse. You really need a proper rehydration formula.
If diarrhea is present, you also need to pay special attention to your diet. Your pharmacist can tell you the foods to eat and those to avoid. For example, as soon as you start to feel better, you can eat bananas, broth, crackers, rice and oatmeal.
Many over-the-counter medicines can also help relieve the nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever and headaches associated with gastroenteritis. Speak with your pharmacist before purchasing any over-the-counter drug, especially if it is for a young child. Your pharmacist can recommend the best product based on the person’s situation, age and health status and give you information on directions for its use.
If you have questions about gastroenteritis, talk for your family pharmacists. They’re here to help