Viral gastroenteritis, commonly known as a stomach virus, is a very uncomfortable illness that most people experience at some point in their lifetime. It is highly contagious and can be acquired from contaminated food, poor sanitation or contact with an infected individual. This viral illness causes diarrhea, abdominal pain and may also result in nausea or vomiting. Symptoms tend to resolve spontaneously after 3 to 7 days, but some supplements, medicines and dietary changes may help relieve symptoms and prevent complications.
Rehydration Solutions and Powders
Diarrhea and vomiting cause a loss of body fluids and electrolytes, which can potentially lead to dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. Over-the-counter products may be considered to help restore electrolyte balance and proper hydration, including rehydration solutions (Pedialyte, CeraLyte) and powder mixes (DripDrop) for anyone over 1 year of age. Sports drinks (Gatorade, Powerade) are another option for adults, although the electrolyte concentrations in these products are not ideal for losses caused by diarrhea. Rehydration products are used along with other clear fluids, like broth, water or tea. In addition to liquids, it is best to resume a regular diet once it can be tolerated. A bland diet is not necessary after a bout with a stomach virus and is not recommended for children, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Antibiotics are not helpful for a stomach virus since these medicines are only useful for bacterial infections. Doctors sometimes prescribe medications to reduce nausea and vomiting, such as ondansetron (Zofran) or promethazine (Phenergan). However, these medications are typically prescribed only if vomiting and nausea are severe, since they may worsen diarrhea. Over-the-counter nausea and vomiting medications, such as dimenhydrinate (Dramamine) and phosphorated carbohydrate solutions (Emetrol) may be taken if needed. Over-the-counter antidiarrheal medications, like loperamide (Imodium) or bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol), are typically not recommended for viral gastroenteritis because they may reduce the body’s ability to flush the infection out of the intestines. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) may be taken if body aches or low-grade fevers occur.
Probiotics are supplements containing healthy bacteria that can improve the balance of these bacteria in the intestines. There are a variety of probiotic pills and capsules available (Probium, Culturelle) over the counter. Probiotics are also found in many yogurts -- those with active cultures -- kefir, miso and other fermented foods. A November 2010 "Cochrane Library" review of the relevant medical research reported that taking probiotics when experiencing viral gastroenteritis can reduce the severity of diarrhea and lead to resolution of diarrhea as much as 24 hours sooner.
Warnings and Precautions
While most viral stomach illnesses are not serious and go away on their own in a few days, the illness can become serious. Additionally, diarrhea, abdominal pain and vomiting sometimes signal another, more serious illness. Seek immediate medical advice if any of the following occur:
-- Severe or worsening abdominal pain.
-- Fever of 101 F or higher.
-- Confusion, dizziness or rapid heart rate.
-- Muscle cramps or weakness.
-- Shortness of breath.
-- Severe vomiting with an inability to tolerate fluids, or vomiting blood.
-- Severe or bloody diarrhea.
-- Symptoms persisting more than 7 days.
-- Stomach virus symptoms in a baby younger than 6 months.
- American Family Physician: Gastroenteritis in Children: Part II. Prevention and Management
- Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal: Rotavirus Overview
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: Foodborne Illnesses: What You Need to Know
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: About Norovirus
- Pediatrics: Practice Parameter: The Management of Acute Gastroenteritis in Young Children
- Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews: Probiotics for Treating Acute Infectious Diarrhoea