You’ve all been there and done that. It’s always a bad day when you get the so-called stomach flu… First of all ‘the flu’ is a respiratory disease (affects the lungs, not the stomach and intestines), and the influenza viruses don’t cause that syndrome of vomiting and watery diarrhea. So, what you’re actually getting is gastroenteritis (gastro = stomach, entero = intestines, and itis = inflammation), an inflammation of the stomach and intestines.
Gastroenteritis means inflammation of the stomach and small and large intestines. Most cases of gastroenteritis are infections caused by a variety of viruses that results in vomiting or diarrhea (other symptoms may include belly cramping, fever and headache from all that retching). There are other (bacterial) causes of vomiting and diarrhea, but the overwhelming number of cases is due to viruses. Your physician will know when the other considerations come into play. Here’s a few points you really want to know.
1. Is it serious?
- In most cases of viral gastroenteritis, the symptoms and condition are rate limited and will come and go without much further ado. Your symptoms will last up to 10 days in most cases.
- The concern isn’t nearly as much with the vomiting and diarrhea as it is with the dehydration that can result from all those fluid losses. Dehydration can cause all manner of electrolyte abnormalities, leading to serious acute illness and even death. In fact, diarrhea and dehydration have long been the number one cause of death worldwide outside of the United States.
2. Is it contagious?
- Absolutely. This is one of the main reasons you’re always being told to wash your hands, especially after using the bathroom. Fecal-oral (yes, anus to mouth) transmission of viruses makes gastroenteritis and many other illnesses contagious. Hand shaking and other forms of contact (including eating food poorly handled or undercooked) extend the risk of transmission.
3. How can I avoid gastroenteritis?
There are good options available to you.
- Avoid food and water that you believe to be contaminated, perhaps because others have had problems with it.
- Frequent hand washing is very important.
- Similarly, take steps to wash and disinfect possibly contaminated clothing and surfaces, preventing this before it gets started.
- A vaccine is available for two of the more common causes of gastroenteritis. Discuss whether it’s appropriate for your child with his/her pediatrician (it needs to be given during your child’s first year of life).
4. How will it be treated?
- Fluids, fluids and more fluids will be given, and unless you can’t keep anything down at all, the fluids should be given by mouth. It’s interesting to note that the U.S. overuses intravenous (IV) fluids much more in these instances than the rest of the world. Learn about oral rehydration therapy (ORT). It’s how the rest of the world (very successfully) treats most cases of vomiting and diarrhea, and it’s roughly approximated by all those popular rehydration brands. The key is to take in enough fluids to stay ahead of the fluid losses. ORT is available over the counter, and remember that you don’t have to guzzle it. As little as a teaspoon at a time still can keep you hydrated.
It’s important to discuss some other treatment considerations.
- Antibiotics don’t work against these viruses, so in this example, they won’t be helpful.
- In select instances, your physician may provide symptomatic treatment for vomiting and diarrhea, but in the absence of this, they should be avoided. There are significant consequences to taking these medications, and a physician should be involved in taking that risk.
In summary, you don’t always have to run to the ER when you get the runs. Stay hydrated, my friends.
Feel free to ask your SMA expert consultant any questions you may have on this topic.
Order your copy of Dr. Sterling’s new book Behind The Curtain: A Peek at Life from within the ER at jeffreysterlingbooks.com, iTunes, Amazon, Barnes and Nobles and wherever books are sold.
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