Stomach flu is an altogether miserable experience that most of us have probably gone through at least once in our lives. Thankfully, however, the illness isn't likely to cause serious complications. But there are a few tips that can help speed you through the worst of it. So come with us as we dive in to all things stomach flu and uncover the best remedies for getting you through the yuck that is this common illness.
What Causes Stomach Flu?
Stomach flu, or viral gastroenteritis, is an infection of the intestines that's caused by a number of different viruses. Interestingly, the term stomach flu is actually a misnomer, as the influenza virus affects the respiratory system, not the digestive tract.
The most common viruses responsible for viral gastroenteritis are:
- Norovirus: This virus is the leading cause of stomach flu and often occurs in confined conditions, such as those encountered on a cruise ship or in a school or dormitory. Symptoms of a norovirus infection usually begin 12 to 48 hours after exposure to the virus and last 1 to 3 days.
- Rotavirus: This virus is the most common cause of the stomach bug in children, who typically become infected when they put their fingers or other contaminated items in their mouths. Symptoms of a rotavirus infection usually begin 2 days after exposure and last 3 to 8 days.
- Adenovirus: Adenoviruses are a common cause of many viral infections, including the common cold, pink eye, and viral gastroenteritis. And like rotavirus, adenovirus typically causes symptoms in children. Symptoms of an adenovirus infection generally begin 3 to 10 days after exposure and last 1 to 2 weeks.
- Astrovirus: Like rotavirus and adenovirus, astrovirus affects children more than adults. Symptoms of astrovirus usually begin 4 to 5 days after exposure and last 1 to 4 days.
Viral gastroenteritis is spread via contact with an infected person's vomit and feces. And you're most likely to come in contact with the viruses that cause stomach flu by eating contaminated food, drinking or swimming in contaminated water, sharing personal items with an infected person, or touching contaminated surfaces like countertops.
What's more, it's possible for infected people to transmit the viruses that cause stomach flu even when they have no symptoms themselves. For example, norovirus remains in a person's stool for up to 2 weeks after symptoms disappear. And the virus can live on surfaces for months.
While absolutely everyone is susceptible to the viruses that cause stomach flu, young children, older adults, and people with compromised immune systems are most at risk of becoming ill.
Stomach Flu Symptoms
Viral gastroenteritis causes a host of unpleasant symptoms, many of which are similar to those seen in cases of gastroenteritis caused by bacteria and parasites. The most common symptoms seen with stomach flu are:
- Watery diarrhea
- Abdominal pain
- Muscle aches
- Low-grade fever
The main complication of stomach flu is dehydration. While healthy individuals can usually avoid dehydration by drinking plenty of fluids, infants, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems are at greater risk of losing more fluids than they're able to replace, so it's wise to be alert to the following signs of dehydration:
- Dry mouth
- Excessive thirst
- Decreased urination
- Sunkensoft spot (infants)
In addition, the presence of certain symptoms indicates an immediate need for medical treatment. These symptoms include:
- Inability to keep fluids down for 24 hours
- Vomiting for more than 2 days
- Bloody bowel movements or vomit
- Fever greater than 104 °F in adults or 102 °F in infants and children
Stomach Flu Prevention
The best way to protect yourself and those you love from viral gastroenteritis is by following a few simple precautions:
- Wash your hands. One of the best ways to prevent stomach flu is by washing your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds—and teaching your children to as well—after using the bathroom, spending time in crowds, or handling or touching potentially contaminated items or surfaces. Carrying hand sanitizer for times when soap and water aren't available is also a good idea.
- Be selfish. Now, we're not recommending you become a narcissist, but being selfish with your personal items can definitely help protect you from stomach flu. So try not to share towels, utensils, glasses, or other items that can increase your risk of infection.
- Disinfect. If someone in your house has viral gastroenteritis, ensuring all the hard surfaces in your home are thoroughly disinfected can help keep the virus from spreading.
- Travel safely. If you're planning on traveling to a part of the world where viral gastroenteritis is common, remember to brush your teeth with and drink only bottled water and avoid ice cubes (unless you make them yourself) and raw and undercooked foods.
- Vaccinate. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), two vaccines effective against rotavirus are currently available in the United States for use in infants.
Remedies for Stomach Flu
If your prevention strategies fail and you end up suffering a bout of stomach flu, there are a number of over-the-counter and home remedies you can use to ease your symptoms, prevent dehydration, and help make yourself more comfortable.
As mentioned, the most common complication of viral gastroenteritis is dehydration, so be sure you’re getting plenty of fluids to help replace what you’ve lost through vomiting and diarrhea. If you’re having trouble keeping anything down, try sucking on ice chips and sipping liquids throughout the day. Focus on water or coconut water or other natural, caffeine-free sports drinks, which contain important electrolytes. Other liquids like bone broth and peppermint and ginger tea can help as well—and peppermint and ginger tea can also help settle your stomach and relieve nausea.
When stomach flu symptoms are at their height, it’s best to lay off food—not that you’ll probably feel like eating anyway. When you begin feeling better, don’t overwhelm your system by jumping right back into your old diet. You should also be sure to avoid sugar, dairy and tomato products, alcohol, caffeine, and fatty, salty, or greasy foods. Instead, start with bland foods that are easy to digest.
One of the most commonly recommended diets for people recovering from viral gastroenteritis is the bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast, or BRAT, diet. These foods are not only easy to digest but can also bind up stool and help with diarrhea. However, the BRAT diet lacks key nutrients, so don’t rely on these foods for too long.
One of the most important ways to speed recovery from any illness, including stomach flu, is to ensure you're getting plenty of rest. In most cases, stomach bug symptoms go away within a few days, so be patient and rest as much as possible.
These beneficial bacteria are known to improve digestive health and support a healthy immune system, and studies suggest that probiotics may also be effective in treating and preventing gastroenteritis. While probiotics are available in a wide variety of foods, including yogurt, kefir, kombucha, and sauerkraut, anyone dealing with a stomach bug might do better to get their probiotics from supplements—at least until symptoms subside.
These building blocks of protein play a key role in almost every biological process, and taking a balanced essential amino acid supplement has been shown in numerous studies to improve health and support well-being. Moreover, amino acids have been found to help prevent a variety of illnesses. And the amino acids arginine, glutamine, proline, and glycine—all of which are found in bone broth—play an important role in digestive tract health by supporting a strong gut lining, which in turn helps protect the body from illness. So, although amino acids can’t prevent the viruses that cause stomach flu from entering the body, they might help you recover faster.
While most people suffering from stomach flu should be able to handle their symptoms at home without any complications, be sure to contact your health care provider with any severe symptoms or symptoms that don't seem to be improving with conservative care.