by Kimberly Allen RN
The medical term for the stomach flu is gastroenteritis. Though it is referred to as the stomach flu it has nothing to do with influenza. The virus that causes influenza does not cause gastroenteritis. Most experts believe that there are approximately 5 billion cases of gastroenteritis every year worldwide, most of which occur in children. There have been approximately 1 1/2 million deaths in children under 5years of age with almost half being caused by the rotovirus. In the US gastroenteritis infections are second only to the common cold and are responsible for approximately 375 million cases of diarrhea as well as approximately 10,000 deaths every year. Most of the deaths occur in children under 5 years of age.
Gastroenteritis or the stomach flu is generally caused by a virus, the rotavirus and norovirus being the two most common. However, it can be caused by bacteria and rarely fungi or parasites. According to a 2012 study published by the CDC there has been a shift as now most are occurring because of bacterial gastroenteritis caused by the clostridium difficile. Whether caused by viral or bacterial agents the result is inflammation of the stomach and/or intestines causing watery diarrhea and frequently nausea and vomiting. The problems arise when gastroenteritis is a symptom of another disease. Many people think of the stomach flu or gastroenteritis as a disease all by itself and frequently it is, however, if it doesn’t resolve in 5-7 days it is probably a symptom of something else and you should seek medical attention.
The stomach flu is a highly contagious illness that spreads rapidly. Most people develop the stomach flu after coming into contact with food and/or water that has been contaminated. Children are highly susceptible because they are always putting either their hands or objects into their mouths. Another thing that increases a child’s susceptibility is that adults can be infected, especially with the rotavirus, and not have any symptoms so they don’t realize they have contracted the virus, but they are still contagious and can spread the virus. Viral gastroenteritis can spread through schools and communities in days.
The most common complication of gastroenteritis is dehydration. this is especially problematic for young children, people with impaired immune systems and older adults. The loss of fluids and electrolytes from the vomiting and diarrhea can lead to numerous complications including irregular heart beat and even death. frequently people in these specific groups are unable to drink enough fluids to replace those lost and need assistance with fluid and electrolyte replacement. Diabetics are also included in those that can become severely ill from dehydration as well as have difficulty managing blood sugar levels and may also need intravenous glucose. If you have been infected with the bacteria clostlridium difficile you can also develop whats called pseudomembranous colitis.
Treatment of the stomach flu depends on the cause. Most cases of viral stomach flu can be managed with rest and fluid replacement. the best fluids to use are the “clear fluids”, if you can see through it it’s OK, which means no milk or fruit juices. there are several drinks available to help with hydration including pedialyte, which is especially good for young children, gatorade and powerade are also great for fluid and electrolyte replacement. Some also get relief with over the counter medications like Imodium to help slow the diarrhea. However, bacterial stomach flu also requires antibiotic therapy. The problem is that the bacteria that generally causes the stomach flu is more virulent and resistant to antibiotics. therefore many Dr’s will do an antibiotic sensitivity test to determine what antibiotic will be the most effective.
The best way to prevent the stomach flu is good hygiene especially good hand washing. The most effective way to properly clean your hands is to wash them by rubbing together vigorously for at least 20 seconds using warm water and soap making sure to get around the fingernails and between the fingers. Hand sanitizer works well when soap and water aren’t available. Children should also be taught to wash their hands especially after using the bathroom and before eating.