Nobody likes getting sick, especially when it’s the stomach flu. The fever, the nausea, the chills, the diarrhea, and the aches and pains add up to an awful feeling. While there is no cure for the stomach flu, the remedies below may help provide relief from the most difficult symptoms.

What is the stomach flu?

The stomach flu, or gastroenteritis, can be caused by a number of different viruses that attack your gastrointestinal system. These viruses can be contracted from food that was not adequately prepared or in conditions with poor hygiene. People with the stomach flu often have symptoms of diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, fever, headache, and sore muscles. Depending on the type of virus you have, the flu can last from one to 10 days.

Stomach flu symptoms

The stomach flu attacks your intestines, and affects your digestive system. Symptoms may include:

  • vomiting
  • watery diarrhea
  • nausea
  • abdominal pain
  • headaches
  • muscle aches
  • low-grade fever

1. Drink the right fluids

Fluids are critically important when you have the stomach flu. You’re losing vital bodily fluids through sweating, vomiting, and diarrhea. If you are having trouble keeping liquids down, try taking small sips at regular intervals or chewing ice chips.

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Clear liquids, such as water and broth, are the best type to consume. Older children and adults can also have sports drinks to help with electrolyte replacement during the stomach flu.

What not to drink

There’s no reason for caffeinated drinks like coffee, strong black tea, and chocolate when you have the stomach flu. Getting enough rest is crucial for treating the stomach flu. Because these beverages have caffeine, they might affect your sleep. Likewise, there’s no need for alcohol, which acts as a diuretic and could upset your stomach more.

2. Eat the right food

Keeping food down can be difficult with the stomach flu. Don’t force yourself to eat if eating makes you feel nauseated.

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The BRAT diet — bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast — should be your go-to when it comes to an uneasy stomach. It consists of foods that are easy to digest, contain a lot of carbohydrates to give you energy, and replenish nutrients lost through vomiting and diarrhea.

  • Bananas: Bananas are easy to digest and can replace the potassium you lose from vomiting and diarrhea.
  • Rice: Brown rice has too much fiber, but white rice is easier on the stomach and provides energy from carbs.
  • Applesauce: Applesauce can provide an energy boost due to the carbs and sugars, and also contains pectin, which can help with diarrhea.
  • Toast: Avoid whole-wheat bread, as fiber can be difficult on the digestive system. White bread is processed and easier to digest.

What not to eat

The list of foods to avoid is much bigger than suggestions of what you might tolerate. General groups to avoid are dairy, fibrous foods, and anything fatty or spicy.

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  • Dairy: Not everyone has a problem with milk when they have the stomach flu, but it could be hard to digest.
  • Fiber: You don’t need the extra fiber if your bowels are loose.
  • Grease: Avoid greasy and salty foods like bacon. Stay off tomato-based dishes, curries, and chili sauces.

3. Healing touch

Acupressure has been shown to be effective in some types of nausea. The Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center suggests finding pressure point P-6 by measuring the width of three fingers down from the bottom of your palm. Press below that width with your thumb and you’ll feel a sensitive spot between two tendons. Gently massage that spot with your thumb for two or three minutes. 

4. Rest

First and foremost, if you have the stomach flu, your body needs rest in order to fight off the virus. You’ll need to get plenty of sleep and reduce the amount of activity you normally do during the day. This means lounging on the couch when you’re not in bed. While you’re lying down, your body is working hard to fight off the virus and repair damage on the cellular level.

5. Medications

When you have the stomach flu, you can take medication, but you should do so sparingly. If you have a fever, headache, or muscle aches, ibuprofen can help, as long as it doesn’t cause you to have more of an upset stomach. Taking it sparingly with food is usually the best approach.

Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is usually recommended for stomach flu, unless you have liver disease. Avoid taking aspirin as well. Antibiotics won’t help with stomach flu because it is a condition caused by a virus, which antibiotics are unable fight.

If you are seeking relief from nausea or diarrhea, there are some prescription medications that your doctor can prescribe to ease your symptoms. Your doctor may prescribe an antiemetic such as promethazine, prochlorperazine, or metoclopramide to stop the nausea and vomiting.

You can also try an over-the-counter antidiarrheal medication, such as loperamide hydrochloride (Imodium) or bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol), to alleviate your diarrheal symptoms. Check with your healthcare provider before trying over-the-counter medications.

Is stomach flu contagious?

A virus causes stomach flu or gastroenteritis. The most common viruses are rotavirus or norovirus. Symptoms appear one to three days after exposure to the virus. You are contagious before you even begin to develop symptoms. Even after you’ve recovered from your symptoms, you can remain contagious for up to two weeks. Children can remain contagious for an even longer period afterward. There are vaccines available for some forms of rotavirus. If possible, avoid close contact with infected people. Do not share food with infected people, and wash your hands frequently.

Remedies for children and infants

Stomach viruses are sometimes even more common in infants and young children than they are in older kids or adults.

In infants, the symptoms of the stomach flu are the same, and may be accompanied by a decrease in appetite. If your infant’s symptoms haven’t subsided in a day or two, you can take them to their pediatrician, who may collect a stool sample to test for the cause of infection.

Encouraging your children to continue to take sips of water (or, in infants, breast milk or formula) to replace lost fluids can help prevent dehydration. Formula-fed infants and toddlers can drink an electrolyte solution like Pedialyte.

Preventing the stomach flu

Having the stomach flu can make you feel miserable. If you do get it, these remedies can help reduce some of the misery but won’t alleviate it entirely. That’s where prevention comes in. Some basic ways to avoid getting the stomach flu (and illness in general) include washing your hands regularly and getting plenty of rest.

If you know the stomach flu is going around, additional methods of prevention include:

  • Use the dishwasher instead of hand-washing dishes when possible.
  • Use soap and water instead of hand sanitizer.
  • Keep a sick family member isolated. Try to restrict them to one bathroom, and have the rest of the household use another.
  • Wipe off shopping cart handles.

Recovery and outlook

The stomach flu is definitely not a pleasant experience, but most people make a full recovery without any complications. Staying hydrated throughout the course of the virus can be the biggest challenge for many who experience gastroenteritis.

While there’s not much to do for the stomach flu but wait it out and use the remedies discussed above, you should call your doctor if you haven’t been able to keep down liquids for 24 hours or are showing any signs of dehydration, are vomiting blood, have bloody diarrhea, or have a fever above 102°F.

You Asked, We Answered

  • What are the odds I'll get stomach flu?- Anonymous
  • The stomach flu is also called the norovirus. It is very contagious and can infect anyone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the norovirus causes over 19 to 21 million illnesses each year. If you or someone in your house has the norovirus, it is important to take precautions to prevent the spread of the virus by hand washing with soap and water, cleaning all surfaces you may have touched, and washing contaminated clothing.

    - Jeanne Morrison, PhD, MSN