Viral Gastroenteritis

Gastroenteritis is sometimes referred to as stomach or gastric flu, or ‘gastro’ and is an inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract resulting in diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting, swelling and cramps. Although bacteria, such as E. coli and Campylobacter can also cause Gastroenteritis, Viral Gastroenteritis is specifically caused by a virus and cannot be treated with forms of antibiotics used to treat bacterial infections.

What is Viral Gastroenteritis?

Viral gastroenteritis is the inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract, which includes the stomach and the small and large intestines, caused by viral infection with the rotavirus, norovirus, adenovirus, or enteric astrovirus. This form of gastroenteritis is sometimes termed by the name of the virus infection.

What are the different types of virus causing Gastroenteritis?

The four main viruses which cause gastroenteritis include:

  • Rotavirus: RNA virus of Reoviridae A (most common infection), B, C, D and E infects humans and animals.
  • Norovirus/Norwalk Virus: RNA virus of Caliciviridae commonly infecting people with O blood type and animals.
  • Adenovirus: RNA virus of Adenoviridae 57 types of virus in 7 species A to G infecting humans and animals.
  • Astrovirus: RNA virus of Astroviridae infecting mammals (Mamastroviruses) and birds (Avastroviruses).

These viruses can live for quite some time outside of the body, being transmitted through air, water and the shared touching of objects.

How does Viral Gastroenteritis occur?

A viral infection is usually caused through transmission of the infection from contaminated water, food, poor hygiene or improper sanitisation, or through infected people. Sharing cups and personal grooming items and not washing hands can also transmit the infection. Outbreaks are more prevalent during wet seasons in certain countries and can also be spread through water in swimming pools, coughing and sneezing.

Is Viral Gastroenteritis contagious?

The condition is extremely contagious particularly affecting children, elderly people and those with auto-immune deficiency or suppressed immune systems. Most people experience rotavirus infection as a child and develop immunity, so infection in adults is less likely.

What diseases or medical conditions result from Viral Gastroenteritis?

Due to loss of fluids from diarrhoea, fatigue and dehydration malnutrition, circulatory and metabolic dysfunction can often occur. Other organs, such as the skin, liver and kidneys, can be affected too. Strained breathing can increase pressure on the lungs and the heart. If the infection prolongs and is left untreated, medical complications and emergencies can arise.

What are the symptoms of Viral Gastroenteritis?

The main signs of viral gastroenteritis manifest in a time frame of 4 to 48 hours and include abdominal pain, diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting. As the infection progresses temperatures can drop or rise suddenly with chills or fever. Muscles and joints may feel stiff and sore. In more severe cases blood is either vomited or appears in the faeces. Dehydration, fatigue and weight-loss can set in due to the loss of fluids.

How is Viral Gastroenteritis diagnosed?

The symptoms are an indicator of gastroenteritis infection. Usually initial diagnosis involves a physical examination of the mouth, eyes, taking the patient’s blood pressure and discussing their problems and medical history. Further diagnostic tests such as blood tests are taken to determine viral infection, serum glucose, and electrolyte levels are necessary. In some cases stool samples are needed for further confirmation of the type of virus causing the infection.

How is Viral Gastroenteritis treated?

Viral infections cannot be treated with antibiotics and only a medical practitioner should prescribe anti-diarrhoea medication, oral rehydration therapy and advise when to stop certain prescription medications. Probiotics may help with symptoms and improve gastrointestinal function. Most viral infections run their course for a period of time before going away naturally.

Initial treatment is usually for symptoms, especially dehydration to rehydrate the body with electrolytes and fluids. These treatments may be in solution form, powder to be mixed in with water or, in serious cases, via intravenous feed. The medical practitioner will advise on dietary foods and fluids to avoid, such as those with high sugar content, and will recommend appropriate consumption for children. Medications may be prescribed to reduce diarrhoea and vomiting; however, this will depend on an individual's health condition, medical history and severity of the infection and symptoms.

How can infection with Viral Gastroenteritis be prevented?

Viral infections causing gastroenteritis can be prevented through proper sanitisation and good hygiene. Examples include:

  • Washing hands, especially after going to the toilet, blowing your nose and after coughing and sneezing.
  • Using alcohol based gels to clean your hands.
  • Avoiding contaminated food or drink.
  • Refrain from sharing personal grooming items and cutlery and cups for drinking.
  • Handling and cooking food hygienically and properly.
  • Not swimming in contaminated pools.

Other preventative measures include:

  • Vaccination, particularly in children, to prevent rotavirus infection.
  • Breastfeeding babies instead of bottle feeding with formula.
  • Having probiotics as part of your diet to improve immunity.
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