Stomach Flu (Gastroenteritis)


Gastroenteritis, or stomach flu as it is commonly called, is an illness caused by a virus. This illness is often called ‘intestinal flu’ or stomach flu since the virus mainly affects the stomach and intestines with nausea and diarrhea. Though the symptoms can vary from person to person, generally gastroenteritis is marked by loose stools or watery diarrhea. It is important to know that is often called the stomach flu is technically gastroenteritis, it is NOT a flu, and is NOT related to what we commonly call “the flu.” Also, you are not protected from the “stomach flu” by getting an annual flu shot.

Although stomach flu is not serious in a health person, it can cause life threatening  dehydration or electrolyte imbalance in the very young, old, ill or weak.

Symptoms of Gastroenteritis (Stomach Flu)

The main symptom of gastroenteritis is diarrhea, but you may have one or more of these symptoms:

  • diarrhea, 2-3 loose watery stools
  • nausea and vomiting
  • stomach cramps or tenderness
  • chills and fever
  • loss of appetite
  • over-all weakness
  • dehydration

How Do You Get Gastroenteritis (Stomach Flu)?

Viral infections are passed from person to person through touching the person or touching something the infected person has touched that has the germs on it. The chances of getting the virus are increased in crowed places like work or shopping malls, daycare centers, schools, churches or recreation areas that are in a tight area where people come in contact with each other. You are also more susceptible if you have a weakened immune system.

There is no specific way to prevent the stomach flu, but you can do a few things to help lower your chances of coming down with the virus.

  • Use proper hand washing techniques after every bowel movement.
  • Don’t share food or eating utensils, such as glasses, spoons or forks, with anyone, especially someone that you know has symptoms of stomach flu.
  • If someone in your family is sick, if possible, give them their own bathroom until they are well, and then clean the bathroom well with disinfectant. If they can’t have their own bathroom, then make sure the bathroom is cleaned and disinfected after each time the infected persons is in the bathroom.
  • Avoid touching surfaces that someone with symptoms has touched, especially wet surfaces in bathrooms and kitchens.

Treating Gastroenteritis (Stomach Flu)

Care at home is usually all that is needed. But if your symptoms cause you to become dehydrated, you may have to go to the hospital. Dehydration, especially in children, older adults or people with chronic diseases such as diabetes, can be very serious and require special treatment. Symptoms of diarrhea usually clear up in 2 to 5 days, although you may feel weak for about a week.

Because viral stomach flu is not caused by bacteria, antibiotics do not work on the virus that causes stomach flu. About all you can do is treat the symptoms and not the virus. The best way to treat gastroenteritis is to let your body’s immune system fight the virus; as your mom says, “let it run it’s course.” In doing so, the best things you can do it not aggravate the intestinal problems by eating foods that are gassy or can cause diarrhea or loose stools—like lots of fruit or fruit juices—and get plenty of rest and fluids since vomiting and diarrhea causes a lot of fluid loss which can lead to dehydration.

If you feel like it, it’s OK to do light activities, but it is best to get as much rest as you can until any fever, nausea and vomiting are better. It’s also best if you can stay out of work so you don’t risk of infecting your co-workers.

In general medicines are not needed. However, if the symptoms are severe or don’t go away, then treat with antinausea and antidiarrheal medicine. To treat the symptom of nausea, you can try over-the-counter medicines like Pepto-Bismol. Imodium or Kaopectate can be taken to treat diarrhea. All these medications are non-prescription and are available at your local pharmacy. Medicines should always be taken per the directions and be sure to follow directions if you are pregnant or have some other chronic illness such as diabetes. You should also learn the signs and symptoms of allergic reaction and what you should do in case you have a reaction to any medicine. You will want to stay where you have quick access to a bathroom or bedpan as well as something nearby to throw up in.

What you should eat and drink

In some cases of stomach flu, the infected person feels nauseated or even vomits. It’s best to avoid any kind of food or drink for 4 hours if you’re vomiting. In case of nausea, you shouldn’t eat or drink anything for at least two hours. Once you start feeling better, try taking small sips of clear water or ice chips. Then gradually try other liquids to rehydrate yourself like Powerade for adults or Pedialyte for infants or kids. Start with a small amount, say about half a cup. The best fluids are Powerade and Pedialyte to replace important electrolytes. When you are able to tolerate a liquid diet, continue it for at least four to eight hours and gradually increasing the amount. Once you can tolerate the fluid diet without vomiting, you can gradually try some bland, solid foods like toast or crackers. Food that are spicy or oily or has a lot of sugar should be avoided. Even fluids that are acidic, like orange juice, or even drinks with high sugar content should be avoided until you are back to eating a regular diet.

For symptoms of diarrhea, the above diet can be applied, that is, avoid any kind of food or drink for at least four hours and then gradually start on ice chips and sips of water and rehydration fluids. Fruit juices and solid foods, other than saltines or plain, dry toast, should be avoided for at least 48 hours as this might aggravate the diarrhea. Once symptoms get better, start a eating complex carbohydrates (rice, wheat, potatoes, bread, cereal, and lean meat like chicken or fish). Carbonated beverages, teas, sports drinks, beverages containing caffeine, and fruit juices are not appropriate. Avoid foods high in sugar and fatty foods for several days.

Preventing the Spread of Stomach Flu

Gastroenteritis is a communicable disease meaning it is spread through touch. The virus spreads very easily with close contact with the infected person. The best way to avoid the spread of the virus is to stay away from work if you have the virus. Even at home you should avoid sharing food or drink or eating utensils. Be careful while cleaning up vomit or diarrhea (wear rubber gloves) or even using the bathroom after someone with symptoms has used it. Make it a point to wash your hands often.

When to Call Your Doctor

Call your regular doctor or visit the emergency room if:

  • Your diarrhea last longer than 2 days.
  • Your symptoms get worse instead of better with treatment.
  • You have mucous in your stool, bloody diarrhea or diarrhea with severe abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, and fever.
  • Medicines are not helping in controlling nausea or diarrhea.
  • The nausea prevents you from taking your daily medicines for other illnesses.
  • You have been vomiting for more than two days or vomiting blood.
  • When you’re having symptoms of dehydration such as weakness, lightheadedness, dizziness, decreased urination or heart palpitations.
  • Your symptoms developed after you return from a foreign trip.

In Summary

  • Symptoms of gastroenteritis vary from person to person but generally it is associated with nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
  • There is no treatment for the virus, only the symptoms can be treated.
  • The immune system of the body fights this virus, so the body needs plenty of rest.
  • To control symptoms of nausea and vomiting, avoid food for two to four hours and then gradually start with a diet of water, ice chips and fluids. Solid food should be avoided for at least 24 hours.
  • To control symptoms of diarrhea, avoid food or drink for four hours; gradually increase fluid intake. Solid food and fruit juices should be avoided for at least 48 hours. Greasy, or high sugar foods should be avoided for several days after symptoms are over.
  • Viral gastroenteritis is a communicable disease. Close contact with those with the virus—sharing food and drink—should be avoided to prevent spreading the virus.
  • If the symptoms persist for a longer than 2 days or get worse with treatment, call your doctor or go to the emergency room.

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