During the winter months, reports often show an increase in viral gastroenteritis, an infection caused by a variety of viruses that results in vomiting or diarrhea. It is often called the "stomach flu," although it is not caused by the influenza viruses. With a bit of prevention, your family can avoid this unpleasant condition.

"The virus is highly contagious and debilitating," Michael Rosen, MD, Pediatric Director of the Emergency Department at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center and Children's Hospital of New Jersey, adding that a sick person usually recovers within 24 to 60 hours of catching the bug. "As with most viruses, the best way to prevent infection is by frequently hand-washing with soap and water," he said.

To avoid infection, families should wash hands frequently and thoroughly — whether members feel ill or not. When soap and water aren't readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer to disinfect your hands. The viruses that cause stomach flu are spread through close contact with infected persons (for example, by sharing food, water, or eating utensils of someone who has the stomach flu). You can also spread the virus by not washing your hands after cleaning up vomit or diarrhea, or after using the bathroom.

Types of Viruses

Norovirus is the most common cause of viral gastroenteritis in adults. Symptoms appear within one to three days of exposure. Patients typically feel better after a day or two, but are contagious for at least three days after recovery.

Rotavirus is the leading cause of viral gastroenteritis in infants and young children. Symptoms of rotavirus appear one to two days after exposure. Patients can remain contagious for two weeks after recovery.

Key points about Stomach Flu

Stomach flu can have different symptoms, but the common ones are nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. For nausea and vomiting, stop eating for two to four hours, and then gradually introduce small amounts of fluids. Avoid most solid foods for 24 hours. If you can't keep the water down, gradually work up to small amounts — half-a-cup or less — of Gatorade, Get plenty of rest to help you recover. For diarrhea, don't eat or drink for four hours; then gradually increase your intake of fluids. Avoid most solid foods and fruit juices for 24 to 48 hours. After the first 24 to 48 hours, gradually resume eating solid foods like bananas, applesauce, or dry toast. The stomach flu virus is contagious - don't let anyone eat or drink after you.

If your stomach flu symptoms are severe, unusual, or persistent, call your healthcare provider for advice. Call your doctor or go to the emergency room if you have bloody diarrhea, if you become dehydrated (feel weak, lightheaded or dizzy, or your heart is racing), or if you have been vomiting for more than two days or if you are vomiting blood.