Gastroenteritis FAQs

What is gastroenteritis?
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), viral gastroenteritis is an infection caused by a variety of viruses that cause vomiting and diarrhea. Though not caused by flu viruses, it is often called the 'stomach flu'.

What are the risk factors for gastroenteritis?
It is common to see a spike in gastroenteritis cases in the winter as cold weather drives us inside to close quarters with our co-workers and family members. Viral gastroenteritis is very contagious. Anyone can get it, but persons in institutional settings like schools and hospitals are more prone to such infections.

How does the virus spread?
The viruses can be spread through close contact with infected persons by sharing food, water or eating utensils and touching common surfaces or objects. Individuals may also become infected by eating or drinking contaminated foods or beverages.

Foods and beverages may become contaminated by infected food handlers that do not properly wash their hands after using the bathroom. Foods and beverages may be contaminated by sewage at harvest. Water can also be contaminated by sewage and be the source of viral spread.

What are the symptoms?
Vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach pain are symptoms of gastroenteritis. Symptoms occur 1 to 2 days after being exposed to the viruses and may last from 1 to 10 days. Most people recover within 1 to 2 days, depending on the virus causing illness.

Gastroenteritis becomes serious when the person cannot replace enough fluids lost during vomiting and diarrhea and becomes dehydrated. Hospitalization may be needed to correct or prevent dehydration, especially among the very young, elderly or immuno-compromised person.

How can I prevent illness?
Hand washing is a key step in stopping gastroenteritis. It is also important to follow proper food storage and preparation rules. Reporting an unusual number of these illnesses to Public Health officials also helps identify potential infection points.

When one experiences diarrhea and vomiting, the immediate disinfection of contaminated surfaces with household bleach-based cleaners and prompt washing of soiled items is essential in preventing secondary spread to others. Cleaning doorknobs, faucets, telephones and other commonly touched objects can also reduce the amount of spread among family members or co-workers.