Acute gastroenteritis, often referred to simply as the stomach flu, is the inflammation of the stomach and intestines. It is typically caused by bacteria, a virus, or a parasite, and symptoms include sudden diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach pain. Acute gastroenteritis is quite common among children, though adults can suffer from it as well. Most cases last only a few days, during which time it is important for the patient to stay hydrated. If the symptoms do not go away within a week, a patient should contact a healthcare provider to see if additional treatment is required.
A bacterial infection is one of the most common causes of acute gastroenteritis, and food-borne bacteria such as E. coli, Salmonella, and Campylobacter account for many of these cases. Infection by parasites like giardia can cause acute gastroenteritis that lasts for several weeks. Viruses can also cause a stomach flu, particularly rotaviruses and noroviruses. All of these microorganisms can spread when someone who is sick does not wash his or her hands thoroughly and touches a surface, like a doorknob, leaving the microbes behind for the next person who touches it. They can also contaminate food and water.
Because gastroenteritis is a condition rather than a disease, it can also be caused in other ways. Accidental poisoning or exposure to toxins, for example, may also cause an inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract, as can some medications. Other medical problems, including an intolerance to certain foods and Crohn's disease, can also cause this condition.
This condition causes diarrhea in almost all cases. In many instances, this is accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and stomach cramps, as well as a fever. More extreme cases can also result in blood in the stool of the person suffering from it; this can be a sign of a serious problem so the patient should contact a healthcare professional. Gastroenteritis is considered acute if the symptoms come on very suddenly and go away after a short amount of time.
Options for Treatment
In most cases, acute gastroenteritis can be treated successfully at home. There are numerous medications readily available to help treat stomach upset and distress. Painkillers can also be used to reduce fever and stomach cramps. One of the biggest dangers of gastroenteritis is dehydration caused by the water loss of vomiting and diarrhea, so it is important for the patient to drink plenty of fluids. Symptoms should pass within about five days.
When a person does not recover from stomach flu symptoms within a week or so, it is usually a good idea to see a healthcare provider. Some types of acute gastroenteritis cannot be cured without medication, especially when caused by bacteria or exposure to parasites. A medical professional may need to diagnose the exact cause by analyzing a stool sample, especially if stomach symptoms continue over an extended period of time. Someone who is unable to even drink water without vomiting should seek help quickly, as it may be necessary to give the patient intravenous (IV) fluids to replace what has been lost.
Ways To Prevent Gastroenteritis
One of the most common causes of acute gastroenteritis is eating food or drinking liquids contaminated with bacteria or parasites. For example, eating undercooked hamburger might lead to exposure to E. coli, a potentially lethal bacteria. Drinking improperly treated water, or drinking from streams and lakes, can expose someone to the giardia parasite. Avoiding raw and uncooked meats, handling dairy and cooked foods properly, and filtering or sterilizing water before drinking it can help prevent exposure to harmful organisms.
Even through causes for acute gastroenteritis vary, the methods of transmission from one person to another tend to be the same. Contact with the fecal matter of a person with the condition, followed by improper or lack of hand-washing, spreads the microorganisms that cause it easily. People who are ill, as well as those around them, should wash their hands thoroughly and regularly to help prevent spreading the illness to others.