What is the stomach flu?
When stomach flu hits, it hits hard.
Nobody likes getting sick, but the stomach flu delivers its own brutal mix of symptoms. When it hits, it can quickly render you nonfunctional and utterly miserable (i.e., lying on the bathroom floor within constant reach of the sink or toilet). The initial stages start with chills, fever, and nausea, which transition into vomiting, diarrhea, and severe aches and pains. It’s awful, and there is no cure. Stomach flu has to run its course. That said, the remedies below may provide relief from the most difficult symptoms and help get you back on your feet once the toughest phase subsides.
1. Drink lots of fluids
Fluids are critically important since 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. The best fluids to drink are:
- clear liquids, such as water and broth
- over-the-counter preparations like Pedialyte (good choice for any age)
- sports drinks, which can help with electrolyte replacement (this should be reserved for older children and adults)
- certain teas, such as ginger and peppermint, which can help calm your stomach and alleviate nausea (avoid highly caffeinated teas)
What not to drink
Most likely, you won’t be in the mood for these during a bout of stomach flu anyway, but avoid:
- Caffeinated drinks like coffee, strong black tea, and chocolate. They can affect your sleep at a time when getting enough rest is crucial.
- Avoid alcohol, which acts as a diuretic.
All of these things can also upset your stomach.
2. Try eating the BRAT diet
Keeping food down can be difficult with the stomach flu. Don’t force yourself to eat if the mere thought of food makes you cringe. When you do finally feel you can get something down, it’s best to start slow and simple.
The BRAT diet — bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast — can be your go-to when it comes to an uneasy stomach. These four foods are easy to digest, contain carbohydrates to give you energy, and replenish nutrients:
- Bananas: Bananas are easy to digest, can replace the potassium you lose from vomiting and diarrhea, and strengthens stomach lining.
- Rice: Brown rice has too much fiber and may produce excess gas. White rice is easy for your body to process and provides energy from carbs.
- Applesauce: Applesauce provides an energy boost due to the carbs and sugars, and it contains pectin, which can help with diarrhea. It is also easy to digest.
- 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
Generally, avoid dairy, fibrous foods, and anything fatty or spicy.
- Dairy: Not everyone has a problem with milk when they have the stomach flu, but it could be hard to digest and can aggravate gas and diarrhea.
- Fiber: You don’t need the extra fiber if your bowels are loose.
- Grease: Avoid greasy and salty foods like bacon.
- Spices: Stay away from tomato-based dishes, curries, and chili sauces.
3. Try acupressure to reduce nausea
Acupressure has been shown to be effective in treating 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 with your thumb for two or three minutes. For a tutorial, be sure to watch this video.
Sea-Bands are a product worn on the wrists. These can be useful in treating nausea if the P-6 acupressure point gives you relief.
4. Get plenty of rest
When you have the stomach flu, your body needs rest in order to fight off the infection. 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 resting, your body is working hard to fight off the infection and repairing damage on the cellular level.
5. Medicate with caution
The stomach flu can’t be cured by medications, and antibiotics won’t help when a virus is the culprit.
You can take over-the-counter medication to treat the symptoms but do so sparingly. For fever or aches, ibuprofen can help, as long as it doesn’t cause you to have more of an upset stomach. It can also be hard on your kidneys if you get dehydrated. Take it sparingly and with food.
Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is often recommended for the stomach flu, unless you have liver disease. It relieves fever and aches, has fewer side effects than ibuprofen, and is less likely to irritate your stomach.
If you are seeking relief from nausea or diarrhea, there are some prescription medications that can ease your symptoms. Your doctor may prescribe an antiemetic such as promethazine, prochlorperazine, metoclopramide, or ondansetron 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). Check with your doctor before trying over-the-counter options. Do not use Pepto-Bismol in children.
Remedies for little ones
As terrible as it is to get the stomach flu yourself, it is even harder to watch your child go through it. If your infant’s symptoms haven’t subsided in a day or two, you should take them to the doctor. Their doctor can make sure your child is on their way to recovery without any complications. They can also check to make sure there are no other causes for their symptoms.
Encouraging children to continue to take sips of water (or, in infants, breast milk or formula) to replace lost fluids is important to prevent dehydration. All infants and toddlers can also drink an electrolyte solution like Pedialyte.
Causes of the stomach flu
The stomach flu (also known as gastroenteritis) is usually caused by any number of different viruses that can attack your gastrointestinal system. It’s not caused by the influenza virus, which gives you the seasonal flu. Less often, bacteria can cause it, typically due to contaminated water or food that was prepared inadequately or in an unhygienic environment.
Preventing the stomach flu
If you know the stomach flu is going around, take extra precautions. Avoid close contact with infected people if possible and wash your hands frequently. Some basic ways to avoid getting the stomach flu (and illness in general) include washing your hands regularly and getting plenty of rest. 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.
- Clean countertops and surfaces with a disinfectant solution, and be sure to wash clothes and bedding as well.
Is stomach flu contagious?
Yes! Usually a virus causes the stomach flu. Symptoms appear one to three days after exposure, so you are contagious before you begin to develop symptoms. And 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. To decrease the risk of passing it onto others, do not go to work or school with symptoms. If you have a fever, wait until it’s gone for 24 hours before returning to your routine.
The road to recovery
While the stomach flu is definitely not a pleasant experience, most people make a full recovery without any complications. Staying hydrated throughout the course of the illness can be the biggest challenge.
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.
Stomach flu: Q&A
What are the odds I’ll get stomach flu?
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, MSNAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.