Although it’s loosely called “the stomach flu”, the intense diarrhea, cramps, vomiting and/or nausea that can lay you low for a couple of days is better termed “viral gastroenteritis”. By any name, it’s not a pleasant experience, but it can be a fascinating exercise in detective work to figure out how you got it. The fact is, there are a number of ways the viruses behind stomach flu can be spread.
Keep in mind, stomach flu symptoms can also have bacterial causes, such as salmonella from food poisoning. However, viral causes, particularly from the highly contagious norovirus, appear to be more common.
Here are a few scary facts about viral gastroenteritis transmission from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: The norovirus can survive for months on surfaces that are not thoroughly disinfected. Even people who don’t have norovirus symptoms can still transmit the virus. And when an infected person vomits, the virus can become airborne.
If you’ve recently had a bout with this notorious bug, see if any of these culprits ring a bell:
Was it something you ate? Being one of the most common infectious forms of foodborne illnesses, the norovirus may lurk in every domestic or institutional kitchen. Sometimes you don’t even have to eat the contaminated food; if you merely touch the food and then put your fingers or hands to your mouth, you could catch the virus. Or perhaps you used the unwashed utensil or drinking glass of someone carrying the virus.
Did you drink water in a foreign country? Maybe the country does not have the caliber of sewage treatment we have in the U.S., and its water out of the tap is intermittently contaminated with viruses.
Were you in a large group setting where food was being prepared and served, or where bathroom hygiene might have been a risk factor? The Centers for Disease Control lists schools, child care facilities, nursing homes, banquet halls, cruise ships, dormitories and campgrounds as possible breeding grounds for the norovirus.
These are just a few possible scenarios. Not surprisingly, the primary way to prevent viral gastroenteritis is to properly wash your hands—make it a habit when you’re in the kitchen or bathroom. Other precautions include properly preparing and storing food, keeping kitchen and bathroom surfaces clean and bleaching laundry soiled by feces.
Gastroenteritis symptoms typically include watery diarrhea, abdominal cramps, headache, fever, fatigue, nausea and vomiting. If you think you have the virus, remember to keep hydrated, and if symptoms don’t lessen within a day or two, contact a health care practitioner.
However, parents of children with gastroenteritis should contact their health provider sooner to get guidance to prevent dehydration.
Reviewed July 19, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg R.N.
Edited by Shannon Koehle