Stomach Flu. Stomach Bug. Stomach Virus. All of these are common day names for gastroenteritis. It certainly seems that Baton Rouge daycares, schools, workplaces, and other close-contact group environments have been seeing a lot of this going around over the past few weeks.
Gastroenteritis is an intestinal infection, typically having a sudden onset, with the most common symptoms being watery diarrhea, abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, body aches, and sometimes fever. The illness is spread through contact with an infected person, by sharing towels, utensils, or other close contact situations, or by consuming contaminated food or water.
Gastroenteritis From Viruses
Gastroenteritis can be caused by viruses, bacteria, or parasites. The two most common viruses that cause gastroenteritis are:
- Noroviruses. Norovirus is the most common cause of food-borne gastroenteritis worldwide. It affects children and adults alike, as it is most often caused from consumption of contaminated food or water, but can also develop from coming into contact with others infected in the community (schools, daycares, colleges, offices) and touching infected surfaces. An individual can get gastroenteritis numerous times in their lives from Norovirus, because there are many strains. Most people with Norovirus begin to feel better in 1-3 days but remain contagious for approximately 3 days after symptoms subside.
- Rotavirus. Children are typically the most affected by the Rotavirus bug, because they frequently put their unwashed hands to their mouths after touching a contaminated object. Adults may have this virus without any symptoms and still be carriers of the virus. Infants and young children are primarily affected and may develop severe symptoms. The virus usually lies dormant for the first 1-2 days and symptoms can last from 3-8 days. There is a vaccine for that protects against rotavirus but it doesn’t protect against all strains so a vaccinated individual may still get rotaviral gastroenteritis.
Gastroenteritis From Bacteria
Bacteria can also be the culprit of gastroenteritis and common causes are E. coli, shigella, and Salmonella. These bacteria can enter into a person’s system from raw or contaminated foods, undercooked foods, improperly cleaned food preparation areas and utensils, and some seafood. These bacteria can be spread by infected food handlers as well.
Gastroenteritis From Parasites
Parasites and protozoa, such as Giardia and cryptosporidium, can be causes of gastroenteritis as well. These bugs live in the intestines of infected animals and spread when unclean water is consumed. Chemical toxins can also cause gastroenterological distress, possibly by seafood consumption or heavy metals in drinking water.
Who’s at Risk for Gastroenteritis?
Gastroenteritis can be very difficult to bear and does not discriminate on who, when, or where it shows up. There are several groups of individuals who may be more susceptible to contracting gastroenteritis and to experiencing the extreme end of the symptoms.
- Young children and infants: This group is often in close group settings and if the virus or bacteria introduces into the group, it is extremely likely to spread among the individuals. Because their immune systems aren’t fully developed, they can experience more severe symptoms and should see a doctor if they seem dehydrated, lethargic, in a lot of pain, has bloody diarrhea, and/or has a fever of 102. Infants should be closely monitored and brought in immediately if they have a sunken fontanel, have been vomiting for several hours, have bloody stools, have a dry mouth or cry without tears (a sign of dehydration), or are unusually sleepy or unresponsive.
- Older Adults/Elderly: As we age, our immune systems tend to become less efficient, and thus, older adults are much more susceptible to the causes of gastroenteritis. Older individuals that reside in nursing or retirement homes are particularly vulnerable to these “bugs” because they are in such close contact with other individuals who may be infected with or carrying the viruses.
- Individuals with Weakened Immune Systems: People who are undergoing chemotherapy, who are living with HIV/AIDS, or who have other medical issues are particularly at risk for contracting these viruses because their immune systems simply do not have the ability to effectively ward off the onset of symptoms. The effects of gastroenteritis can be much more severe as well for these high-risk patients.
The real danger of gastroenteritis lies in dehydration of an individual. The loss of fluids and electrolytes, salts, and minerals poses a problem if an individual cannot replenish their fluid levels. Severe dehydration can result in the need for hospitalization and IV fluids to restore balance.
Treatment of Gastroenteritis
Self-treatment and care of one’s self is typical protocol for treatment of gastroenteritis, unless complications arise. Rest, let your stomach settle by abstaining from food for a few hours, and try to drink clear fluids or eat ice chips in the earliest stage of gastroenteritis. Once an individual is ready to try eating again, it’s best to stick to a bland, easy to digest diet, often referred to as a BRATs diets (Bananas, Rice, Applesauce, Toast). Other simple foods that help ease the transition back to eating are gelatin, crackers, chicken, and light soups or broths. Avoiding dairy products, nicotine, caffeine, alcohol, high fat foods, or extremely salty foods are a general recommendation for people dealing with gastroenteritis. Medications, such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen, can upset the stomach as well and should be avoided if possible.
Children should be given oral rehydration solutions, such as Pedialyte, in order to help their systems re-regulate. The World Health Organization recommends an Oral Rehydrating Solution (ORS) of 1 quart water with 2 tbsp sugar and 0.5 tsp salt. Apple juice should be avoided, as it can worsen diarrhea. Infants with gastroenteritis should have their stomach “rest” after bouts of vomiting or diarrhea and they should be offered breast milk, if breastfed or formula with oral rehydrating solution or water mixed in. Formula should be mixed as usual and not be diluted.
A simple stomach virus should resolve in 1-2 days. If it persists, it could be an infection that needs to be treated. If gastroenteritis has become a chronic problem, it will need further evaluation.
Primary measures of prevention come from inhibiting the spread of the germs- hand washing, not sharing personal items (eating utensils, towels, etc), disinfecting hard surfaces, and avoiding contact with infected individuals. Vaccinations for children in their first year of life for the rotavirus strain of gastroenteritis can help to reduce instances for this vulnerable and commonly affected group of young individuals.
If you are suffering from symptoms of gastroenteritis in Baton Rouge, a gastroenterologist can help. Contact Gastroenterology Associates, and request an appointment with any one of our many qualified physicians.