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Viral gastroenteritis facts

From the Center for Disease Control and Prevention

What is viral gastroenteritis?

Viral gastroenteritis is an infection caused by a variety of viruses that results in diarrhea. It is sometimes mistakenly referred to as the "stomach flu."

What are the symptoms of viral gastroenteritis?

The main symptoms of viral gastroenteritis are watery (not bloody) diarrhea and vomiting. The affected person may also have headache, fever, and abdominal pain. Sore throat and muscle aches can sometimes occur. In general, the symptoms begin 1 to 2 days following exposure to a virus that causes gastroenteritis and may persist for 1 to 10 days depending on the virus causing the illness.

What causes the infection?

Viral gastroenteritis can be caused by many different viruses, including rotaviruses, adenoviruses, caliciviruses, astroviruses, Norwalk viruses, and a group of Norwalk-like viruses. Viral gastroenteritis differs from diarrheal disease caused by bacteria (such as Salmo/nella or Escherichia coli) or parasites (such as Giardia), or by medications or other medical conditions. Your doctor can determine if the diarrheal disease is caused by a virus or by something else.

Who is at risk for viral gastroenteritis?

Viral gastroenteritis can occur in people of all ages and backgrounds. However, some viruses tend to cause diarrheal disease primarily among people in specific age groups. Rotavirus infection is the most common cause of diarrhea in infants and young children. Rotaviruses affect nearly every child by the time he or she reaches 4 years of age. Adenoviruses and astroviruses cause diarrhea mostly in young children but older children and adults can also be infected. Caliciviruses and Norwalk and Norwalk-like viruses are more likely to cause diarrhea in older children and adults than in younger children. Adults who are particularly at risk include the elderly and those who have problems with their immune system, such as organ transplant recipients, those with severe medical illnesses, or those taking medications that suppress their immune system.

Is viral gastroenteritis a serious illness?

People who are affected by viral gastroenteritis almost always recover completely without any long-term adverse health effects. However, a small number of infected persons must be treated for dehydration because of more severe or persistent diarrhea and vomiting, sometimes requiring hospitalization.

Where can I get more information?

If you have additional questions, please consult your physician or your local health department. You can also contact the CDC Public Inquiries Office at (404) 639-3534 or the CDC Viral Gastroenteritis Section at (404) 639-3577.

Prepared by: Viral Gastroenteritis Section, Mailstop G-04 Respiratory and Enteric Viruses Branch, Division of Viral and Rickettsial Diseases National Center for Infectious Diseases, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1600 Clifton Road, N.E. Atlanta, Georgia 30333, June 1996.


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