Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was hospitalized in Seoul, South Korea after complaining of abdominal pain. The 86 year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner was attending a security forum when he became ill. Tests, including x-rays and an MRI, did not reveal any serious illness, and he is being treated for a stomach virus with hydration and observation.
Viral gastroenteritis is often mistakenly called “stomach flu,” but it is not caused by the influenza virus and it does not infect the stomach. Highly contagious, viral gastroenteritis is the second most common illness in the United States. It causes millions of cases of diarrhea each year.
Anyone can get viral gastroenteritis and most people recover without any complications. However, viral gastroenteritis can be serious when people cannot drink enough fluids to replace what is lost through vomiting and diarrhea- especially infants, young children, the elderly, and people with weak immune systems.
The viruses that cause viral gastroenteritis damage the cells in the lining of the small intestine. As a result, fluids leak from the cells into the intestine and produce watery diarrhea. Four types of viruses cause most viral gastroenteritis.
Viral gastroenteritis is highly contagious. The viruses are commonly transmitted by people with unwashed hands. People can get the viruses through close contact with infected individuals by sharing their food, drink, or eating utensils, or by eating food or drinking beverages that are contaminated with the virus. Noroviruses in particular, are typically spread to other people by contact with stool or vomit of infected people and through contaminated water or food—especially oysters from contaminated waters.
People who no longer have symptoms may still be contagious, since the virus can be found in their stool for up to 2 weeks after they recover from their illness. Also, people can become infected without having symptoms and they can still spread the infection.
Outbreaks of viral gastroenteritis can occur in households, child care settings, schools, nursing homes, cruise ships, camps, dormitories, restaurants, and other places where people gather in groups. If you suspect that you were exposed to a virus in one of these settings or by foods prepared on the premise of places such as a restaurant, deli, or bakery, you may want to contact your local health department, which tracks outbreaks.
Most cases of viral gastroenteritis resolve over time without specific treatment. Antibiotics are not effective against viral infections. The primary goal of treatment is to reduce the symptoms, and prompt treatment may be needed to prevent dehydration.
The body needs fluids to function. Dehydration is the loss of fluids from the body. Important salts or minerals, known as electrolytes, can also be lost with the fluids. Dehydration can be caused by diarrhea, vomiting, excessive urination, excessive sweating, or by not drinking enough fluids because of nausea, difficulty swallowing, or loss of appetite.
In viral gastroenteritis, the combination of diarrhea and vomiting can cause dehydration. The symptoms of dehydration are
If you notice any of these symptoms, you should talk to your doctor. Mild dehydration can be treated by drinking liquids. Severe dehydration may require intravenous fluids and hospitalization. Untreated severe dehydration can be life threatening.
Children present special concerns. Because of their smaller body size, infants and children are at greater risk of dehydration from diarrhea and vomiting. Oral rehydration solutions such as Pedialyte can replace lost fluids, minerals, and salts.
The following steps may help relieve the symptoms of viral gastroenteritis:
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