A stomach bug or the stomach flu is layman's terms for a condition called viral gastroenteritis. It can afflict anyone of any age, but in kids it's typically caused by rotavirus, and in adults it's typically caused by norovirus. Viral gastroenteritis happens suddenly and typically subsides in less than a week. Food poisoning can also lead to gastroenteritis, but food poisoning is caused by bacteria (instead of a virus).
A stomach bug can lead to a host of symptoms that may make eating the last thing that you want to do — that being said, certain foods may be easier to tolerate, and others may actually help settle your stomach.
Most people who contract viral gastroenteritis are able to get better on their own without seeking medical help. In some cases, however, viral gastroenteritis can have severe symptoms and may lead to dehydration.
Signs and Symptoms of a Stomach Bug
Symptoms of gastroenteritis include watery diarrhea, abdominal pain or cramping, nausea, vomiting and sometimes fever. These symptoms can lead to further complications. Because of the potential for nausea, vomiting and diarrhea — on top of the lack of eating and drinking — dehydration is one of the more common complications.
Dehydration can cause tiredness, fatigue, lightheadedness, sunken eyes, decreased skin turgor and extreme thirst. If someone shows any symptoms of dehydration, they should seek medical attention.
Other reasons to seek medical attention are if an adult is experiencing one or more of the following: a change in mental state, irritability, diarrhea for more than two days, high fever, frequent vomiting, six or more stools per day, severe pain in the abdomen or rectum, stools that are black or contain blood or pus, or dehydration.
Additionally, pregnant women, older adults, children or anyone with an already weakened immune system should seek medical attention if they show any symptoms of gastroenteritis.
The dietary tips and recommendations provided below are for adults only — babies and children have their own unique needs.
Foods to Eat With a Stomach Bug
Fasting or eating a restrictive diet has not been shown to help treat gastroenteritis. Instead, eating foods and drinking fluids as tolerated to maintain hydration and electrolyte balance is one of the major diet goals with a stomach bug. The electrolytes of most concern are sodium and potassium.
Of course, there are some foods that are better tolerated than others. They're a good first step if you feel like you can tolerate eating but aren't sure where to start.
Fluids and Electrolytes
Replacing fluids and electrolytes lost from vomiting or diarrhea is a top priority to prevent dehydration. Opt for soup, water, sports drinks, popsicles, coconut water, clear sodas — such as ginger ale or lemon-lime varieties (if tolerated) — and broths (with sodium).
Bland foods are lower in fat, fiber, spices and are typically cooked or have a soft texture. Some of the best foods to try when you're able to tolerate solids again are refined grains (bread, pasta, white rice), Cream of Wheat, vegetables (cooked or canned), lean meats, applesauce, bananas, pudding or custard, peanut butter and eggs.
Foods to Avoid When You Have a Stomach Bug
Anyone with gastroenteritis should try to eat and drink as tolerated, but there are some foods that are typically less tolerated and can make symptoms worse. The foods and beverages to avoid include caffeine (coffee, teas, and some sodas), spicy foods, high-fat foods (pizza, fried food, etc.), alcohol and sugary foods and drinks.
It's also worth noting that dairy products and raw fruits (except for bananas) and veggies may worsen diarrhea — so proceed with caution. High-fiber foods can also aggravate an upset stomach.
How to Prevent the Stomach Flu
Taking steps to prevent the stomach flu is your best defense. One of the most effective actions you can take is keeping your hands germ-free. Thoroughly wash your hands with soap and warm water anytime you use the bathroom, are preparing food or after touching surfaces in public spaces.
If you become sick with a stomach bug, clean areas and surfaces that you come in contact with and limit your exposure to others. It's also worth noting that the flu vaccine doesn't protect you against gastroenteritis aka the stomach flu.
Is This an Emergency?
- HNS Inform: Gastroenteritis
- NIH, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: Symptoms & Causes of Viral Gastroenteritis (“Stomach Flu”)
- NIH, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: Eating, Diet, & Nutrition for Viral Gastroenteritis (“Stomach Flu”)
- Medline Plus: Bland Diet
- Brown University, Health Services: Viral Gastroenteritis
- CDC: Prevent the Norovirus