There’s almost nothing worse than being bent over a toilet throwing up. And, sadly, it can be hard to know what caused you to be there in the first place. Kelli Miller, ANP, UnityPoint Health, lists the symptoms of the stomach flu and how long it lasts, plus ways to feel better, so you can get out of the bathroom and get back to normal.
Stomach Flu Symptoms
Miller says it’s easy to get confused about the difference between influenza, or “the flu,” and gastroenteritis, better known as “the stomach flu.” The stomach flu is caused by a number of viruses, mainly norovirus, which accounts for more than 50 percent of all cases, and others, like rotavirus. Bacteria, such salmonella and E. coli, can also be to blame. Getting the flu shot does not prevent you from getting the stomach flu, but it does prevent you from getting influenza.
“Stomach flu symptoms include stomach pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea,” Miller says. “A low-grade fever, chills and muscle aches aren’t uncommon to experience as well. Symptoms can start as little as 12 hours after exposure.”
These symptoms can last anywhere from one to 14 days, and unfortunately, the stomach flu is extremely contagious.
“The stomach flu is spread by the fecal-oral route, which means the viruses from infected feces or vomit find their way into our mouths from either touching a contaminated surface and then touching your face or eating/drinking contaminated foods and/or water. Compared to other viruses, noroviruses can live for days on household surfaces, which is why they spread easily,” Miller says.
Stomach Flu vs. Food Poisoning
Miller says the clinical symptoms of the stomach flu and food poisoning overlap quite a bit, as you can have vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal discomfort and fever with either one. She says the easiest way to determine the cause of your discomfort is to look back at your recent history.
“If your symptoms are caused by food poisoning, they tend to occur within hours after eating something. If you can recall eating something questionable, or if others who ate the same thing as you and have similar symptoms, you probably have food poisoning. If you are the only one who got sick, you more than likely picked up a viral illness,” Miller says.
Stomach Flu vs. COVID-19
To make matters even more confusing, some people with COVID-19 (about 20% according to studies) experience stomach issues including nausea, vomiting and/or diarrhea. Most people with those symptoms usually report developing them in the first couple of days and then go on to experience other respiratory or cold-like symptoms like fever, headache, cough and fatigue.
If you experience nausea, vomiting and/or diarrhea, keep an eye out for other symptoms that may follow. If you notice a progression in the illness, talk with your doctor about getting tested for COVID-19. Remember, if you’re feeling sick, stay home and continue to wash your hands frequently.
How to Treat the Stomach Flu at Home
Miller says there's often no specific medical treatment for viral gastroenteritis. Antibiotics aren't effective against viruses and overusing them can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. She recommends treating the stomach flu with the following self-care steps:
- Keep drinking the right fluids. You’ll need to drink enough fluids to prevent dehydration. In addition to water, older children and adults can drink sports drinks, like Gatorade, Power Aid, while babies and young children can have an oral rehydration solution, such as Pedialyte. If your child is vomiting, you can try to give your child a few teaspoons of fluid every few minutes. Babies who breastfeed can continue to breastfeed. But, you should avoid drinks with increased sugar content, such as juices or sodas, which can make diarrhea worse.
- Eat the right foods. If you don’t have an appetite, you should resort to drinking only liquids for a short period of time. Boiled starches (potatoes, noodles, rice, wheat and oats) and plain cereals with salt are recommended, if you have watery diarrhea. You may also try crackers, bananas, soup and boiled vegetables.
- Avoid heavy foods. On the other hand, you should avoid certain foods until you are feeling better. These include dairy products, caffeine, alcohol, nicotine and fatty or highly-seasoned foods.
- Get plenty of rest. The illness or dehydration can make you feel tired.
“Adults under 65 years old with a new bout of diarrhea, with no fever or blood in bowel movements, can take medicine to stop diarrhea, such as loparmide (Imodium) or bismuth subsalicyclate (Pepto Bismal) for one to two days, if they’re not allergic to these medications. Children and adults over the age of 65 should check with their health care provider before taking any over-the-counter medicines,” Miller says.
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Stopping the Spread of the Stomach Flu
As contagious as it is, keeping your family from catching the stomach flu can be tricky. Miller offers these tips to protect against the viral infections that cause gastroenteritis:
- Immunize little ones. Infants can be immunized with the rotavirus vaccine. This is offered at 2, 4 and 6 months old during well-child visits.
- Simply wash your hands. Wash your hands often to stop the spread of germs. Hand sanitizer works after being in public as well.
- Give your home the once-over. Use household cleaning products to disinfect surfaces and objects, like countertops, doorknobs, handles, sinks, toilets, computer keyboards and phones.
- Separate your laundry loads. Wash laundry of those recovering from the stomach flu in different loads than the rest of your family.
- Keep your distance. Try to keep your children, especially newborns, away from anyone who is sick. If someone in your family is sick, stay home and do not go to work, school or day care. You should be symptom-free for 48 hours before returning.
When the Stomach Flu Requires a Doctor
While most stomach illnesses pass on their own, there are cases when medical attention is necessary. Miller recommends watching for signs of severe dehydration:
- Increased thirst
- Dry mouth
- Increased heart rate over 100 beats per minute
- Increased breathing rate
- Dizziness, including when standing from a sitting or laying position
- Passing out
- Dark yellow or amber colored urine
- No urination within the past six to eight hours (during the day)
In addition to severe dehydration, Miller also says the following are causes for concern, and if you experience these, contact your provider:
- Bloody stool/rectal bleeding or blood in vomit
- Vomiting for more than 24 hours
- Fever greater than 104 degrees
- Weight loss
- Severe abdominal pain
- Prolonged symptoms lasting more than a week
- Are currently pregnant
Lastly, call your baby's doctor right away if your baby:
- Has vomiting lasting several hours
- Hasn't had a wet diaper in six hours
- Has bloody stools or severe diarrhea
- Has a sunken soft spot (fontanel) on the top of his or her head
- Has a dry mouth or cries without tears
- Is unusually sleepy, drowsy or unresponsive
If any of these symptoms are present, evaluation by a health care professional is needed right away, and IV hydration may need to be administered or possible admission to the hospital.
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