What is acute gastroenteritis (stomach flu)?

Acute gastroenteritis is also known as “stomach flu,” but it’s usually not the same as influenza (the flu).

Acute gastroenteritis is an inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract (the pathway food takes from the mouth, including the mouth, esophagus, stomach, and intestines).

Antibiotics can treat a bacterial infection that causes stomach flu, but not viruses that cause influenza.

What causes acute gastroenteritis?

Acute gastroenteritis can be caused by viral, bacterial, or parasitic infections.

Viral acute gastroenteritis is contagious. The viruses that cause acute gastroenteritis are spread through close contact with infected people, such as by sharing food or eating utensils, and touching contaminated objects.

What are the symptoms?

Diarrhea is the main symptom. The large intestine can’t retain fluids, which causes feces to become loose or watery. Other symptoms include:

  • Abdominal pain or cramping
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fever (if child’s fever is over 104°F at any time, call immediately.)
  • Poor feeding (in infants)
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Excessive sweating
  • Clammy skin
  • Muscle pain or joint stiffness

Who is at risk for acute gastroenteritis?

Anyone. Children at daycare and students in dormitories are more at-risk.

How is acute gastroenteritis diagnosed?

In most cases, the diagnosis is based on the symptoms, history of exposure to someone with diarrhea, spoiled food or impure water, and the results of a physical examination. I will take a medical history to make sure that nothing else is causing the symptoms.

In more severe cases or symptoms persisting more than 10 days, I may consider a stool test.

A stool culture (a lab test to detect disease-causing bacteria and other organisms from a sample of feces) can be used to identify the specific virus or germ causing gastroenteritis.

How is acute gastroenteritis treated?

The body usually fights off the disease within a few days. The most important factor when treating acute gastroenteritis is replacing fluids and electrolytes.

Foods that contain electrolytes and complex carbohydrates, such as potatoes and whole grains, help replace nutrients. You can also buy electrolyte and fluid replacement solutions at pharmacies.

Antibiotics will not be effective if the cause of gastroenteritis is a viral infection. If the infection is bacterial, antibiotics may be prescribed.

How can I prevent this?

  • Washing your hands frequently, especially after going to the bathroom and when working with food
  • Cleaning kitchen surfaces, especially when working with raw meat or eggs
  • Keeping raw meat, eggs, and poultry away from foods that are eaten raw