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Viral Gastroenteritis

(Stomach Flu; Stomach Bug)

Pronounced: gas-tro-EN-ter-ite-is


Viral gastroenteritis is an intestinal infection.

The Intestines

Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

Causes    TOP

Viral gastroenteritis is caused by one of several viruses that assault the intestines. The viruses are usually spread through contact with someone who is infected or with something an infected person touched. Viral gastroenteritis also can spread through food or water that is contaminated. Noroviruses, rotaviruses and enteric adenoviruses are the most common causes of infection.

Risk Factors    TOP

Viral gastroenteritis is more common in children and child care centers, and in older adults in nursing homes.

Risk factors for viral gastroenteritis include group settings such as:

  • Cruise ships
  • College dormitories
  • Campgrounds

Symptoms    TOP

The symptoms of viral gastroenteritis usually begin between 1-2 days after you’re exposed to the virus. The illness usually lasts 1-2 days, but it can rarely last for up to 10 days.

Symptoms may include:

  • Watery diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Fever
  • Muscle aches
  • Headache

Vomiting and diarrhea can lead to dehydration, especially in children.

Diagnosis    TOP

You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Your doctor may also order a stool culture. This test looks for bacteria in a stool sample, which would indicate a different type of illness.

Treatment    TOP

There is no specific medical treatment for viral gastroenteritis. Antibiotics are not helpful for infections caused by a virus. However, there are a number of things you can do to be more comfortable and avoid dehydration.

  • Fluids—It is important to drink fluids to replace those lost during illness. Take small sips of water, suck on ice chips, or drink clear soda or noncaffeinated sports drinks. Give your child an oral rehydration solution (such as Pedialyte) instead of water.
  • Diet—Gradually begin to eat bland foods such as toast, crackers, scrambled eggs, or potatoes. Avoid dairy products, caffeine, fatty foods, and spicy foods until symptoms resolve. If you are breastfeeding an infant who is sick, continue to breastfeed. If your baby is bottle-fed, give them an oral rehydration solution or formula. Avoid giving children juice or jello because they do not rehydrate.
  • Rest as needed.

Call your doctor if you:

  • Cannot keep fluids down for 24 hours
  • Vomit blood
  • Have bloody diarrhea
  • Have a fever above 101°F (98°C)
  • Vomit for more than 2 days
  • Have signs of dehydration:
    • Lightheadedness
    • Excessive thirst
    • Dry mouth
    • Dark urine
    • Little or no urine

Call your doctor if your child:

  • Is under 6 months of age
  • Has a fever of 102°F (38.8°C) or higher
  • Seems tired or irritable
  • Has trouble feeding
  • Has bloody diarrhea
  • Has stomach pain
  • Has signs of dehydration:
    • Unusual drowsiness
    • Dry lips and mouth, or sunken eyes
    • No tears when crying
    • Dark urine
    • Not urinating very much (for example, no wet diaper in 3 hours)
    • Feeling thirsty, but vomiting after drinking fluids

Prevention    TOP

To help reduce your chances of viral gastroenteritis:

  • If possible, avoid contact with people who have the condition.
  • Always wash your hands often and thoroughly. Use warm water and soap.
  • Help your children wash their hands thoroughly.
  • Use bleach to disinfect contaminated surfaces in your home (toilet, sink faucet in bathroom).
  • Avoid sharing personal items such as toothbrushes, towels, and drinking glasses.
  • Take special care when traveling to countries that are more likely to have contaminated food and water. Only drink sealed bottled water, avoid ice cubes and brushing your teeth with tap water, and avoid eating raw foods, including vegetables.


Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention



Norovirus. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: Updated August 30, 2016. Accessed December 15, 2017.
Norovirus infection. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: Updated July 31, 2017. Accessed December 15, 2017.
Viral gastroenteritis. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases website. Available at: Accessed December 15, 2017.
Last reviewed December 2017 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Marcie L. Sidman, MD
Last Updated: 12/15/2017

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This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.

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