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Diseases & Conditions A-Z

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Viral Illnesses

Gastroenteritis is a nonspecific term for a variety of pathologic states of the gastrointestinal tract. The primary manifestation is diarrhea, but it may be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. A universal definition of diarrhea does not exist, although patients seem to have no difficulty defining their own situation. Although most definitions center around the frequency, consistency, and water content of stools, the author prefers the definition that diarrhea stools take the shape of their container.


You're most likely to contract viral gastroenteritis when you eat or drink contaminated food or water, or share utensils, towels or food with someone who's infected.

Some shellfish, especially raw or undercooked oysters, can make you sick if they're harvested from contaminated waters. Contaminated drinking water also can cause viral diarrhea. But in many cases, the virus is passed through the fecal-oral route — that is, someone with the virus handles food you eat without washing his or her hands after using the bathroom.

A number of viruses (noroviruses) can cause gastroenteritis, including:

  • Rotavirus. This is the most common cause of infectious diarrhea in young children. Every year, thousands of children are hospitalized and nearly 100 die due to complications of the infection. In other parts of the world, the mortality rate among children is much higher. Although rotavirus is especially dangerous for children less than 1 year old, it can infect adults who are exposed to children with the virus. It's also a frequent cause of epidemics in nursing homes. Your child is likely to have rotavirus at least once before age 4, especially if he or she spends time in a child-care center. The risk is highest between 6 months and 24 months of age. Children are usually infected when they put their fingers or other objects contaminated with the virus into their mouths. Even tiny amounts of rotavirus may cause a serious illness. Signs and symptoms — which include diarrhea, nausea and vomiting — can range from mild to severe and last anywhere from three to nine days. Your child may also have a low-grade fever, cramping, headache or muscle pain.

  • Norwalk virus. The Norwalk virus generally affects older children and adults and is often called the winter vomiting disease. It can sweep through families and communities, leaving everyone it infects seriously ill. Norwalk virus is especially likely to spread among people in confined spaces. In addition to diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, you're likely to have muscle aches with this virus. In most cases you pick up the virus from contaminated food or water, although many cruise ship outbreaks seem to result from person-to-person transmission. After exposure to the virus, you're likely to feel sick within four to 72 hours.

If your immune system is compromised by HIV/AIDS, you're susceptible to other gastrointestinal infections, including:

  • Cytomegalovirus (CMV). Although otherwise-healthy people with CMV may never develop symptoms, the virus can be extremely serious if you have HIV or AIDS. In addition to severe diarrhea, CMV may cause blurred vision or blindness, and pain, weakness or numbness in your legs. The virus spreads through body fluids, such as saliva, blood, semen, urine, vaginal secretions and breast milk. Although you can get CMV from sexual activity, you can also get it if you simply touch infected fluids and then touch your mouth or nose. Mothers with CMV can pass the virus to their infants in their breast milk. You can also acquire CMV through blood transfusions or organ transplants. The best way to avoid infection is by using condoms and washing your hands thoroughly and often. If you expect to have a blood transfusion, talk to your doctor. Most blood banks don't screen for CMV.

  • Herpes simplex virus. If you have a compromised immune system, you're at risk of gastrointestinal infections with the herpes simplex virus. Signs and symptoms include anal pain and bloody diarrhea. You may also have pain in the back of your thighs or tingling in your buttocks or anus.

Risk factors

Gastroenteritis occurs all over the world, affecting people of every age, race and background. In developing nations it's a leading cause of death in children.

Children in child-care centers and older adults living in nursing homes are especially vulnerable. That's because children's immune systems aren't mature until about age 6, and adult immune systems tend to become less efficient later in life.

But intestinal infections can flourish anywhere people congregate — from schools and dormitories to campgrounds and luxury cruise ships. Adults whose resistance is low — often because their immune systems are compromised by HIV, AIDS or other medical conditions — are especially at risk.

Each gastrointestinal virus has a season when it's most active. If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, you're more likely to get rotavirus or the Norwalk virus between October and April.

Gastroenteritis > 1 > 2 > 3 > 4

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