Viral Gastroenteritis

Patient Experience

  • Reference Number: HEY-318/2016
  • Departments: Infection Prevention and Control
  • Last Updated: 1 December 2016


This leaflet informs you about viral gastroenteritis.  It explains what it is, what causes it and what you should do to prevent the spread of it. This leaflet is designed to provide background information but if you have any questions generated by this leaflet please ask one of the health professionals caring for you.

What is viral gastroenteritis?

Viral gastroenteritis is an illness caused by a number of viruses including Norovirus or Rotavirus.  Gastroenteritis means inflammation of the stomach, small and large intestines.  The viruses cause various symptoms which may include:

  • Diarrhoea, often watery
  • Nausea and vomiting, often violent and sudden
  • Stomach cramps
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Malaise (general feeling of being un-well)

In general, the symptoms begin 24 to 48 hours following exposure to the virus. The illness usually lasts for 24 to 72 hours.

How did I get it?

The viruses are spread:

  • From contact with other people who have viral gastroenteritis
  • From food contaminated by someone who has viral gastroenteritis
  • From raw food or uncooked food, particularly meat and fish

The viruses are highly contagious and can be easily spread within hospital wards, mental health units, schools, nurseries and institutional settings such as nursing and residential homes.

Staff working in these settings are equally susceptible if they do not adhere to precautions such as hand hygiene and the wearing of aprons and gloves. Staff who experience symptoms of viral gastroenteritis should inform Occupational Health and must stay off work until they have been symptom free for 48 hours.

Rotavirus infection is the most common cause of diarrhoea and vomiting in infants and young children but the elderly, with an impaired immune system, can also be affected. Norovirus is more likely to cause symptoms in older children and adults.

Will these viruses do me any harm?

The symptoms of vomiting and diarrhoea can be very debilitating but these are usually short-lived and a full recovery is made.

Vomiting and diarrhoea can cause dehydration and for some people this can be a problem especially if they are unable to replace fluids which they have lost.  Infants, young children and people who are unable to care for themselves, such as the disabled or elderly, are especially at risk.

How are the viruses diagnosed?

By obtaining a sample of the diarrhoea and sending it to the laboratory.

How are the viruses treated?

There is no specific treatment; the illness should be allowed to take its course. Maintaining good hydration is important due to potential loss of fluid.

How can the spread of the virus be prevented?

One of the best ways to prevent the spread of the virus in hospitals is to nurse you in a side-room if possible and to provide a separate toilet or commode and hand washing facilities. Containment of the virus is important to prevent its spread to other wards and units. If a number of patients are affected it may be necessary to close the bay or ward to new admissions.

Frequent and thorough hand washing with soap and warm water is extremely important especially after visiting the toilet and before preparing and eating food.

Can my visitors catch or spread these viruses?

Yes unfortunately they can, they can also bring the virus into the hospital if they have symptoms themselves. A notice will be placed at the entrance to an affected ward to notify visitors if there is an outbreak of viral gastroenteritis. Visitors should avoid coming to the hospital if they have had diarrhoea and vomiting within the last 48 hours. When patients have symptoms of diarrhoea and vomiting, all consumables such as fruit and opened sweets should be removed from any affected patient areas. Visitors must wash their hands on entering and leaving the room/ward where there are patients with symptoms of viral gastroenteritis.

Can I be discharged with these viruses?

Discharge can take place following consultation with your doctor, family and yourself providing you have been symptom free for 48 hours.  Patients are not generally discharged to nursing or residential homes if a ward is closed due to viral gastroenteritis. This is due to the possible spread of infection to these establishments.

Under the General Data Protection Regulation and the Data Protection Act 2018 we are responsible for maintaining the confidentiality of any information we hold about you. For further information visit the following page: Confidential Information about You.

If you or your carer needs information about your health and well-being and about your care and treatment in a different format, such as large print, braille or audio, due to disability, impairment or sensory loss, please advise a member of staff and this can be arranged.

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