Gastroenteritis (cont.)

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Is gastroenteritis contagious?

The majority of causes of gastroenteritis are contagious (mainly viral, bacterial, and parasitic). In some instances where the cause of the gastroenteritis is not a pathogen (for example, food allergies, toxins that are ingested), gastroenteritis is not contagious.

Is gastroenteritis a serious illness?

Most adults with gastroenteritis (as defined previously) feel uncomfortable but do not have a serious illness. This is not always true for children and infants and especially some adults (elderly, immune depressed, infected with C. difficile) because they dehydrate rapidly. If dehydration develops and is not rapidly reversed, this symptom can change an infection that usually resolves on its own without medical treatment into a serious illness.

How does food get contaminated with gastroenteritis viruses?

Food is easily contaminated by people who prepare or handle food, and have viral gastroenteritis. Most often, failure to adequately wash hands or to clean off foods (for example, vegetables and fruits) that may be contaminated with sewage or untreated water, allow viral contamination that causes gastroenteritis. Additionally, the viruses can be viable for hours to days when they contaminate surfaces like handrails, doorknobs, and other items. This situation of contamination is essentially the same for many of the bacterial and other pathogens that can cause bacterial gastroenteritis.

Who is at risk for gastroenteritis?

Gastroenteritis is a very common disease; most people are at some risk of encountering the wide-spread causes (mainly viral and bacterial). This risk is due to poor hygiene of people with the disease (for example, infants, children, or some food handlers). Some people have higher risk for infection; for example, individuals on cruise ships or those who live or work in crowded conditions like child care centers, dorms, or barracks, because of the higher chance that an infected person will come in contact with many other people, and rapidly spread the causative agent.

Infants, children and some adults (elderly, immunodepressed) are at risk of developing dehydration with gastroenteritis because they may lose fluids more rapidly than normal adults. In addition, patients treated with antibiotics have their normal bacterial flora suppressed; this can allow for other pathogens, especially C. difficile, to multiply and cause infection. Women who are pregnant are not at any greater risk if they stay well hydrated; if they do not, they may put themselves and their baby at risk of dehydration and its complications such as kidney failure, electrolyte abnormalities, shock and fetal death.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 9/2/2014

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