Viral gastroenteritis is a highly contagious intestinal infection commonly known as stomach flu. Symptoms include watery diarrhea, stomach cramps, and vomiting.
Stomach flu is caused by a variety of viruses and often develops after contact with an infected person or consuming contaminated food or water. Less often, stomach flu can be caused by bacteria.
Though stomach flu can be incredibly unpleasant, most people recover within a few days without any further complications.
There is no specific treatment for stomach flu, and the infection can usually be left to run its course. Home treatments can improve symptoms, however, and are recommended for anyone who thinks they are ill.
Although viral gastroenteritis is referred to as a flu, it is not the same as influenza. Influenza only affects the respiratory system, including the nose, throat, and lungs. Stomach flu attacks the stomach and intestines.
Symptoms of stomach flu can include:
- watery, non-bloody diarrhea
- stomach cramps and pain
- nausea, vomiting, or both
- occasional muscle aches or headache
- low-grade fever
In most cases, symptoms appear within 1-3 days of infection and can range from mild to severe. People often begin to experience symptoms 12-48 hours after being exposed to the virus. Symptoms often last for 3-7 days. In severe cases, they can last up to 10 days.
Anyone with symptoms of stomach flu should not go to school or work.
There are no drugs that can cure stomach flu; antibiotics cannot help because the condition is usually caused by a virus.
- Ibuprofen - can help with fever and aches, but it should be used cautiously as it can upset the stomach and give the kidneys extra work to do when they are already dehydrated.
- Acetaminophen - this is often recommended and has less side effects than ibuprofen. If you want to buy Acetaminophen, it is available on amazon.
- Antiemetics - these can relieve the feelings of nausea. Doctors may prescribe promethazine, ondansetron, metoclopramide, or prochlorperazine.
- OTC antidiarrheals - including subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol) and loperamide hydrochloride (Imodium). Pepto-Bismol should not be used in children.
Stomach flu is caused by a number of different viruses. It generally appears following contact with someone who is already infected or after eating contaminated food or water. Less often, stomach flu can be caused by bacteria.
The symptoms of stomach flu and food poisoning are very similar; although food poisoning is more common.
One major difference is the duration of illness. Food poisoning tends to clear up within a couple of days, but stomach flu can last 10 days.
For a more detailed look at the differences, try our article "How to tell if you have a stomach virus or food poisoning."
Unfortunately, there is no exact treatment plan or cure for stomach flu. Antibiotics don't help with viral infections, so relief may best be provided by home remedies that relieve the symptoms.
People with stomach flu often don't feel like eating and can become dehydrated due to a lack of food. The body also loses a lot of fluids through diarrhea, vomiting, and sweating.
It is important to keep up fluid levels in the body to help avoid dehydration. People with stomach flu should drink plenty of liquids such as clear soda, clear broths, or caffeine-free sports drinks. Slow sips help to keep fluids down.
People who can't keep food or drink down can snack on ice chips to keep hydrated.
Not all drinks are equal when it comes to treating stomach flu; it is wise to avoid coffee, black tea, and chocolate - they can unsettle the stomach; additionally, caffeine can disrupt sleep, which is important for recovery. Alcohol should be avoided because it is a diuretic - in other words, it does not rehydrate.
What to eat
Stomach flu often reduces or destroys the appetite. However, as symptoms improve it is important to start slowly and eat simply.
It is important to rehydrate with sports drink, non-caffeinated soft drinks, or diluted fruit juices. Then maybe transition to soups and broths, and then normal age-appropriate small meals.
Some people report negative experiences from eating dairy, while others are unaffected. Fiber loosens the bowels, so it is best to avoid excess fiber. Tomato-based, fatty, and spicy dishes can also worsen diarrhea.
Stomach flu can be exhausting. The body needs as much energy as possible to fight off the infection and repair damage; for this reason, it is important to rest, allowing the immune system to work and cells to repair as quickly as possible.
Anyone with stomach flu should rest during the day and get a good night's sleep each night.
Although evidence is weak, some people may find symptoms relieved by the following treatments:
Ginger and peppermint
To make ginger tea:
- add 1 teaspoon of powdered ginger or ½ teaspoon of fresh ginger root to 1 cup of water
- boil 5 minutes and let steep 10 minutes
- strain the tea when using fresh ginger root
- drink 2-3 times daily to get relief
Ginger can be used as a spice in meals. People with stomach flu can also consume ginger by taking ginger capsules, drinking ginger ale, or chewing a piece of ginger. If you wish to purchase powdered ginger, it is available to buy on amazon.
To make mint tea, take a few fresh mint leaves and boil them in water. Strain the infusion.
Some individuals report that acupressure can reduce nausea. Measure three finger-widths down from the bottom of the palm; apply pressure with your thumb to the soft part between two tendons. Massage for a couple of minutes.
Chamomile is a plant that can be used as part of a stomach flu remedy. It relaxes the muscles and has anti-inflammatory properties.
This plant may help relieve diarrhea, stomach cramping, bloating, nausea, and gas in some individuals.
To make chamomile tea:
- add 2-3 teaspoons of dried chamomile flowers to a cup of hot water, which can be purchased online at Amazon.
- cover and let it steep for 10-15 minutes
- strain, and then add some lemon juice and honey to taste
- drink this tea three or four times a day for 2-3 days
Rosemary, red, and fennel tea may also have anti-inflammatory properties and aid digestion.
If young children have symptoms for more than 1-2 days they should be taken to the doctors. If possible, the child should be encouraged to take sips of water (or breast milk/formula) to prevent dehydration.
Electrolyte solutions, such as Pedialyte, can also help replace lost fluids.
Norovirus is the most common form of the stomach flu. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it causes 19-21 million illnesses, contributes to 56,000-71,000 hospitalizations, and 570-800 deaths each year.
It is the most common cause of foodborne-disease outbreaks in the United States. There are a few simple measures that can reduce the risk of catching stomach flu:
Washing hands frequently and practicing general cleanliness can help prevent the norovirus from spreading.
- People should always wash hands before handling or preparing food and after using the toilet or changing a diaper.
- Wash all fruits and vegetables and thoroughly cook seafood before eating.
- People who begin to feel ill should not prepare food for others.
- Wipe shopping cart handles before use.
- Disinfect countertops and surfaces, and wash clothes and bedding.
- Use the dishwasher rather than washing dishes by hand.
- Isolate sick family members - for instance, restrict them to one bathroom.
People should see a doctor immediately if they:
- cannot keep liquids down for 24 hours
- are dehydrated
- notice blood in their bowel movements
- have a fever above 104 degrees Fahrenheit
Doctors can offer help for some symptoms and make sure that they are not caused by another illness. Some bacterial infections cause the same symptoms as stomach flu.
If home remedies do not provide any relief from stomach flu, a doctor can also offer additional professional guidance.