Viral gastroenteritis is an infection of the intestines caused by a virus.

The Intestines

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Viral gastroenteritis is caused by one of several viruses that assault the intestines. The viruses are usually spread through contact with someone who is infected or with something he or she touched. Viral gastroenteritis also can spread through food or water that is contaminated.

Risk Factors

A risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease or condition.

Risk factors for viral gastroenteritis include:

  • Age and location: children in child care centers and elderly people in nursing homes
  • Group settings: cruise ships, college dormitories, campgrounds


The symptoms of viral gastroenteritis usually begin between 1 to 2 days after you’re exposed to the virus. The illness usually lasts 1 to 2 days, but it can rarely last for up to 10 days.

Symptoms may include:

  • Watery diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Fever
  • Muscle aches
  • Headache

Vomiting and diarrhea can lead to dehydration (losing more water than you take in), especially in children.


Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam. Your doctor may also order a stool culture. This test looks for bacteria in a stool sample, which would indicate a different type of illness.


There is no specific medical treatment for viral gastroenteritis. Antibiotics are not helpful for infections caused by a virus. However, there are a number of things you can do to be more comfortable and avoid dehydration.

  • Fluids—It is important to drink fluids to replace those you’ve lost when sick. Take small sips of water, suck on ice chips, or drink clear soda or noncaffeinated sports drinks. Give your child an oral rehydration solution (such as Pedialyte) instead of water.
  • Diet—Gradually begin to eat bland foods, such as toast, crackers, bananas, rice, chicken, and potatoes. Avoid dairy products, caffeine, fatty foods, and spicy foods until you’re feeling better. If you’re breast-feeding an infant who is sick, continue to breast-feed. If your baby is bottle-fed, give him or her oral rehydration solution or formula.
  • Rest—Make sure you get enough rest while you’re sick and when you’re recovering. If your child is sick, make sure he or she gets plenty of rest.

Call your doctor if you:

  • Can’t keep fluids down for 24 hours
  • Vomit blood
  • Have bloody diarrhea
  • Have a fever above 101 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Vomit for more than two days
  • Have signs of dehydration:
    • Dizziness or light-headedness
    • Excessive thirst
    • Dry mouth
    • Dark urine
    • Little or no urine

Call your doctor if your child:

  • Is under six months of age
  • Has a fever of 102 degrees Fahrenheit or higher
  • Seems tired or irritable
  • Has bloody diarrhea
  • Has stomach pain
  • Has signs of dehydration:
    • Unusual drowsiness
    • Dry lips and mouth
    • No tears when crying
    • Dark urine
    • Not urinating very much (for example, no wet diaper in three hours)
    • Feeling thirsty but vomiting after drinking fluids

If you are diagnosed with viral gastroenteritis, follow your doctor's instructions.


You can take several steps to prevent viral gastroenteritis:

  • If possible, avoid contact with people who have the condition.
  • Always wash your hands thoroughly. Use warm water and soap, rub vigorously, and rinse well.
  • Help your children wash their hands thoroughly.
  • Use bleach to disinfect contaminated surfaces in your home (toilet, sink faucet in bathroom).
  • Don’t share personal items (toothbrush, towels, drinking glasses).
  • Take special care when traveling to countries that are more likely to have contaminated food and water. Only drink bottled water, avoid ice cubes, and don’t eat raw foods, including vegetables.