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Viral Gastroenteritis

  • Cynthia M. Johnson, MA
Publication Type:


Viral Gastroenteritis

(Stomach Flu; Stomach Bug)


Viral gastroenteritis is an infection of the intestines and stomach.

The Intestines.

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Viral gastroenteritis is caused by one of many viruses. The virus can spread easily through fluids of the mouth and nose. It is passed to surfaces and objects where it can live for hours. People touch the surface with the virus then touch their mouth, nose, or eyes. This is the easiest way for the virus to spread. The virus may also be spread through food or water that has the virus. Some common viruses include:

Risk Factors

Children and older adults are more likely to get this infection. It can spread easily in:

  • Child care centers
  • Nursing homes
  • Cruise ships
  • College dormitories
  • Campgrounds


The symptoms begin 1 to 2 days after contact with the virus. They usually last 1 to 2 days.

Symptoms may include:

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


The doctor will ask about symptoms and past health. A physical exam may be done. The doctor will suspect a virus based on symptoms.

Stool may need to be tested to see if the illness is severe or not passing. It will help to find the exact cause of the infection.


The infection will pass on its own. Antibiotics are not helpful against viruses. Most will only need home care and rest.

IV fluids may be needed for people with severe nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting.


The best way to prevent an illness is to avoid the virus. In general:

  • Avoid contact with people who are sick.
  • Wash hands often and thoroughly. Use warm water and soap.
  • Disinfect household surfaces.
  • Avoid sharing personal items, such as toothbrushes, towels, and drinking glasses.
  • Take safety steps in countries that are more likely to have contaminated food and water. Only drink sealed bottled water. Avoid ice cubes and brushing teeth with tap water. Avoid eating raw foods, including vegetables.




  • Norovirus. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/norovirus. Accessed September 26, 2020.
  • Norovirus infection. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/norovirus-infection.
  • Rotavirus gastroenteritis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/rotavirus-gastroenteritis.
  • Viral gastroenteritis ("stomach flu"). National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases website. Available at: https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/viral-gastroenteritis.


  • David L. Horn, MD, FACP
Last Updated:

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.