Gastroenteritis: Overview and Facts

If you have just been diagnosed with gastroenteritis, you probably are wondering when the worst part of the illness will be over. The good news is that most cases of gastroenteritis are manageable, with symptoms clearing up within just one to two days. The right information can get your gut back on track.

Gastroenteritis is not a simple case of the flu. Although often referred to as one and the same, gastroenteritis and stomach flu (influenza) are two completely separate conditions. While the flu typically affects your respiratory system (nose, throat and lungs), gastroenteritis specifically attacks your intestines.

The stomach, small intestine and large intestine (colon) all are part of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, an organ system that helps to break down and digest food, absorb nutrients and expel waste. The main symptom of gastroenteritis is inflammation and/or irritation of one or more parts of the GI tract.

Gastroenteritis can be caused by viral, bacterial or parasitic infections, with viral and bacterial infections being more common. Viral gastroenteritis is contagious and is responsible for the majority of outbreaks in developed countries.

Norovirus is a notorious (viral) cause of gastroenteritis in adults and children. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, norovirus is the most common cause of acute gastroenteritis; causing 19 million to 21 million illnesses a year and contributing to between 56,000 to 71,000 hospitalizations and 570 to 800 deaths. Norovirus also is the most common cause of foodborne-disease outbreaks in the U.S. You can have the norovirus illness many times in your life, and it can be serious, particularly for young children and older adults. There is no vaccine available for norovirus. However, there is a vaccine for rotavirus, a similar common in infants and toddlers. The rotavirus vaccine is recommended for all infants in the first year of life.

Salmonella and campylobacter bacteria are the most common bacterial causes of gastroenteritis in the U.S. and typically are spread by the consumption of undercooked poultry, poultry juices or eggs. Salmonella can be spread through live poultry or pet reptiles.

Sources of infection in gastroenteritis can include:

  • Contact with an infected person
  • Contaminated food (particularly seafood)
  • Contaminated water
  • Dirty utensils
  • Unwashed hands.

In less developed countries, gastroenteritis usually is spread through contaminated food or water.

How common is gastroenteritis?
It is very difficult to determine the prevalence of gastroenteritis, since hospitalization is not required for many cases and the symptoms are quite similar to those of diarrhea. According to Cleveland Cinic, a non-profit multispecialty academic medical center that integrates clinical and hospital care with research and education, “Worldwide, it is estimated that three to five billion cases of acute diarrhea, (which can be caused by diseases other than gastroenteritis) occur per year, with about 100 million cases in the U.S. Severe gastroenteritis is estimated to cause about five million to10 million deaths per year worldwide, and about 10,000 deaths per year in the U.S.”

Anyone can contract gastroenteritis. People at a higher risk include children in daycare, students living in college dormitories, travelers and those working in the military. Those with a weakened immune system and infants are at a higher risk.

Lisa Cantkier, CHN is a certified holistic nutritionist and a health and wellness editor.

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