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Diarrhea and the Stomach Flu

Every year, millions of Americans come down with the "stomach flu," or viral gastroenteritis. It can cause diarrhea, vomiting, cramps, fever, and headache. It’s also highly contagious. What treatments will make life with the stomach flu a little less awful? More importantly, how can you avoid getting it in the first place? Here are some answers.

What Is the Stomach Flu?

The stomach flu is not a single disease. Instead, it's just a nickname for viral gastroenteritis, which is itself caused by a number of nasty viruses, such as noroviruses, rotaviruses, and adenoviruses.

These viruses target the digestive tract and cause inflammation of the stomach and intestines. The most awful symptoms -- diarrhea, vomiting, and cramps -- are actually your body's defense mechanisms. Your body is trying to drive the virus out.

Stomach flu can develop at any time of the year, but it's most common in the fall and winter in the U.S. Although unpleasant, stomach flu is rarely serious. Symptoms usually last for 1 to 3 days and sometimes longer. The greatest risk -- especially in babies and older people -- comes from dehydration. Untreated, dehydration can be dangerous.

Despite the name, stomach flu has nothing to do with the "true" flu, influenza. Influenza causes body ache and fever. It almost never causes diarrhea or vomiting in adults. Rarely, it can trigger vomiting in children.

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