Viral gastroenteritis, better known as the stomach flu, is not really a flu at all, according to the National Library of Medicine (NLM). In contrast to the real flu, it has different symptoms and therefore a different treatment plan. Here's how to feel better when you have the stomach flu.
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What Is the Stomach Flu?
The real flu — also known as influenza — is a condition that affects the respiratory system, which is made up of the nose, throat and lungs, explains the Mayo Clinic.
By contrast, the stomach flu is actually "an infection of the gut and intestines caused by viruses," says Hana Hakim, MD, an associate faculty member in the infectious diseases department at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.
That infection often belongs to the norovirus family, the NLM says, and it's most commonly acquired either through contaminated food or water or by person-to-person contact. According to the NLM, that means that the most effective way to prevent getting the stomach flu is with frequent handwashing.
Read more: The Best Foods to Eat With a Stomach Bug
Stomach Flu Symptoms
Once you get the stomach flu, symptoms will likely include watery diarrhea, abdominal cramps, vomiting, nausea and a low-grade fever, according to the Mayo Clinic. Such symptoms typically arise within one to three days after infection, vary from mild to severe and usually last only a couple of days, though some can endure for upwards of 10 days.
However, "there is no anti-viral treatment for these viruses," Dr. Hakim says. And since antibiotics are not an effective weapon against viruses, they cannot treat the stomach flu, says Mayo Clinic. In fact, taking them is not only pointless, but it may end up contributing to antibiotic overuse and, thereby, the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, adds Mayo.
"It is advised not to take medications that stop diarrhea that is caused by viral infection," Dr. Hakim says. Mayo Clinic also cautions against turning to popular over-the-counter medications, which means limiting the use of ibuprofen, which can upset the stomach, or acetaminophen, which can cause liver toxicity in children.
Read more: Foods to Eat to Avoid the Stomach Flu
How to Feel Better
All that said, Dr. Hakim says that "the stomach flu is self-limited, which means persons with stomach flu typically get better on their own." However, there are certainly some things you can do to help move things along and try to limit the misery.
"Treatment is supportive care," Dr. Hakim says. "It is important for persons with stomach flu — especially children — to drink enough fluids to prevent dehydration." Specifically, she says that "sugary fluids such as juice or soda should be avoided because they make diarrhea worse."
The Mayo Clinic generally advises that people with the stomach flu get as much rest as possible and stick to a relatively bland diet, which means turning to easy-to-digest foods, such as chicken, rice, crackers, toast, gelatin and bananas. It also means avoiding most dairy products, caffeinated beverages, alcohol and fatty foods. Cigarettes are also best to avoid.
When to Get Medical Attention
If symptoms linger or become severe, a doctor visit may be warranted. For example, Mayo Clinic suggests that adults sidelined by gastroenteritis should get in touch with their doctor:
- If they've been vomiting for more than 48 hours
- If they vomit up blood
- If they've become severely dehydrated
- If they develop a fever exceeding 104 degrees Fahrenheit.
Similarly, the Mayo Clinic advises parents to seek medical attention for a child with stomach flu who:
- Develops a fever of 102 degrees Fahrenheit or more
- Becomes lethargic or extremely irritable
- Is in a great deal of pain or discomfort
- Has bloody diarrhea
- Has become severely dehydrated
According to NLM, key signs of dehydration to look for in adults include excessive thirst, dry mouth, infrequent urination or dark-colored urine, dry skin, fatigue and dizziness. In children, dehydration symptoms may also include crying without tears, extreme sleepiness, sunken eyes, irritability and no wet diapers for three hours or longer.
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.