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Viral Gastroenteritis vs Bacterial Gastroenteritis: What's the Difference?

Medically reviewed by Elfred Landas, MD · General Practitioner · Maxicare Primary Care Center

Written by Tracey Romero · Updated May 05, 2021

    Viral Gastroenteritis vs Bacterial Gastroenteritis: What's the Difference?

    Gastroenteritis, more commonly and incorrectly known as the “stomach flu,’ is a health condition usually caused by a bacterial infection or a viral infection that affects the digestive system. The most prevalent symptoms are vomiting and diarrhea, with other complications taken into account. Let’s learn the difference between viral gastroenteritis vs bacterial gastroenteritis. 

    In differentiating viral gastroenteritis vs bacterial gastroenteritis, there is only one remarkable aspect that separates each type of gastroenteritis, and that is how they are contracted. The aforementioned is important as patients and readers may learn how to counteract or mitigate the occurrence of this type of infection, especially for children.

    Symptoms of Gastroenteritis

    The symptoms of viral gastroenteritis vs bacterial gastroenteritis are almost identical and are characterized as being sudden and temporary, lasting for a range of days depending on the severity of the infection and the patient. Both types of gastroenteritis are highly contagious, and individuals who maintain contact with an infected patient are at risk.

    Its symptoms are further categorized by the following:

    • Vomiting
    • Watery Diarrhea
    • Blood in stool (for specific cases)
    • Abdominal pain
    • Cramps in the stomach area
    • Appetite loss
    • Dehydration
    • Lethargy
    • Body aches

    Viral gastroenteritis, in addition, may cause other symptoms such as

    • Fevers
    • Headaches
    • Chills
    • Other symptoms leading to fatigue of the patient.

    This set of symptoms often causes confusion for individuals in determining the difference between gastroenteritis and a form of flu. 

    Differences in Mode of Transmission

    Aside from the symptoms mentioned above, viral gastroenteritis may be differentiated from bacterial gastroenteritis by taking a look at how the infection was contracted by the patient. 

    Viral gastroenteritis results from the onset of several different viruses, such as the rotavirus, adenovirus, norovirus, and astrovirus. People may contract the virus via consuming contaminated water and food. Transmission may also occur through contact with vomit or fomites, otherwise understood as materials that are suspect of being contaminated. This includes clothes, furniture, utensils, etc.

    Bacterial gastroenteritis may also be transmitted via fecal-oral route, but it can also be contracted by an individual through the consumption of improperly prepared and stored food. Said bacteria may produce toxins that may be harmful to the patient. Once a patient consumes food contaminated with bacteria, gastroenteritis may be triggered by the bacteria itself or by its byproducts.

    Abdominal Pain and Vomiting Without Fever: Gastroenteritis Symptoms?

    Treatment and Management of Gastroenteritis

    Reducing the severity of symptoms

    While there is no actual medical treatment for gastroenteritis, specific steps may be taken to mitigate the severity of its symptoms:

    • Avoid dehydration by maintaining a consistent and heavy intake of fluids
    • If recommended, oral rehydration drinks are helpful, and in severe cases, IV fluid treatment through hospital admission may be done
    • Antibiotics to counteract bacteria if the latter is the cause of gastroenteritis
    • Avoidance of drugs that counteract diarrhea and vomiting, as such can keep the infection inside the body of the patient, in exchange for short-term relief

    Reducing risk

    Additionally, there are steps that can be taken for patients in order to prevent or reduce the risk of viral and bacterial gastroenteritis. General suggestions on the prevention of viral gastroenteritis vs bacterial gastroenteritis include:

    • Practice thoroughly washing hands after:
      • Using the bathroom
      • Eating
      • Smoking
      • Changing diapers
      • Using tissues or handkerchiefs
      • Handling animals and pets
      • Handling raw food
  • Use disposable paper towels as an alternative to drying one’s hands
  • Maintain cleanliness for kitchen equipment and surfaces
  • Maintain a clean toilet and bathroom
  • Keep recommended or intended temperature for specific food
  • Ensure meats are properly cooked before consumption, especially pork, chicken, and fish
  • Avoid handling raw and cooked foods with the same tools, containers, devices, etc.
  • If traveling abroad or in a place wherein one cannot guarantee fresh, clean water, always bring and drink bottled water
  • When to Seek Medical Aid

    If a patient suffering from gastroenteritis experiences fever or persistent vomiting and/or diarrhea that lasts more than two days, or has stools that are irregular in any way or form, it’s important to get in touch with a physician as soon as possible. In addition, bring the patient immediately to the hospital if they display any symptoms of severe dehydration.

    Key Takeaways

    Healthy, adult patients suffering from gastroenteritis will recover from a case of gastroenteritis without any form of complications. However, patients like the elderly, young children, pregnant women, and patients with a weak immune system are vulnerable and more prone to severe dehydration if proper care is not given.

    Additionally, gastroenteritis can increase the risk of patients being exposed to other diseases and disorders. Proper sanitation techniques and self-quarantine while sick will aid in preventing the spread of the infection to other individuals. As mentioned above, for severe cases, consult a doctor. 

    Learn about Gastroenteritis here


    Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

    Medically reviewed by

    Elfred Landas, MD

    General Practitioner · Maxicare Primary Care Center

    Written by Tracey Romero · Updated May 05, 2021

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