Along with the common cold, viruses of all varieties pop up during the wintertime. Like the influenza that appears similar to a very bad cold, stomach flu (viral gastroenteritis) is very common, affecting twenty-one million Americans each year. (1) Now that it’s stomach flu season, you may find it helpful to know what it is and what to do if it strikes you or your family.
Effective home remedies for stomach flu can help calm your symptoms and adequate rest are the best ways to get rid of the stomach flu as quickly as possible.
While you’re in the throes, you probably won’t feel much like eating; once you feel better, however, it’s important to get the right nourishment to restore what was lost and get your strength back. Your system will still be tender so we have some suggestions for what to eat after a stomach flu has passed.
Stomach Flu Vs. Food Poisoning
Stomach flu symptoms are similar to those of other types of flu with the extra special stomach distress added:
- joint and muscle aches
- stomach cramps
- loss of appetite/weight loss
These are similar to the symptoms of food poisoning so you may be not be sure which you’ve contracted. In the case of food poisoning, you can expect additional symptoms:
- heavy sweating
- extreme thirst
Food poisoning symptoms usually hit within a few hours of eating contaminated food. Stomach flu can take up to forty-eight hours after exposure to begin to affect you and the symptoms usually come on slowly.
Stomach Flu Causes
Like influenza, stomach flu is caused by a virus—usually one of the following:
- adenovirus – common in children, this type of virus affects tissue linings, including those of the upper respiratory tract, eyes, urinary tract, intestines, and nervous system
- norovirus – also known as “the winter vomiting bug”, this attacks the digestive system and is the most common cause of the stomach flu
- rotavirus – the most common cause of inflammation of the stomach and intestines (gastroenteritis) in children worldwide.
How Long Does Stomach Flu Last?
If you were to ask someone who has had it, they’ll tell you: “too long”. Most cases of stomach flu will take a couple of days to run their course.
Depending on the severity of your symptoms, however, you may feel its effects for up to ten days. Given the harshness of this type of bug, it’s no wonder why.
If symptoms don’t subside after a few days, see your healthcare practitioner to determine if there’s some other medical condition that’s causing them to linger.
Is Stomach Flu Contagious?
Yes, extremely so. Stomach flu is contracted via direct or indirect contact with someone who has the bug or a hard surface that’s been infected.
These types of viruses can also spread through contact with bodily excretions, a potential hazard when changing a diaper.
You can remain contagious for up to three days after symptoms have dissipated. Stomach flu season is November to April, so it’s wise to pay special attention to hygiene during this time.
Similar to other infectious disease, medical experts recommend a common sense approach to avoid getting sick and spreading infection.
- Wash hands thoroughly with warm soapy water, especially after using the toilet or being in close contact with others. The incubation period for these viruses is twenty-four to forty-eight hours before the onset of symptoms so you may come into contact with someone who has it but is asymptomatic.
- Avoid contaminated food and water or anything that’s been in close proximity to an infected person.
- Wash produce before eating it.
- Cook meats and seafood thoroughly – norovirus is the top cause of foodborne illness. (2)
- Dispose of vomit and feces of the infected person slowly and carefully, as the virus can become airborne.
- The infected person should not attend work, school, or any event where other people are present to avoid spreading the virus.
- Frequently clean hard surfaces with an anti-viral cleaner or hot soapy water. Lemon juice, peppermint, and tea tree oil are natural anti-virals that can be mixed with water in a spray bottle for use in cleaning and disinfecting.
How To Get Rid of Stomach Flu?
Vaccinations against influenza viruses (“flu shot”) are available but they won’t protect you from viral gastroenteritis—it’s a different kind of bug. (3) Antibiotics are ineffective because those work on bacteria, not viruses.
Because viral gastroenteritis is caused by a virus and not bacteria or a parasite, it will eventually make its way through your immune system and you’ll get better in the course of time (which is usually not more than a couple of days).
While suffering with the stomach flu, dehydration is the most hazardous consequence, as everything is coming out and nothing is going in. Dehydration can become a serious condition that requires hospitalization if severe.
Signs of dehydration include:
- sunken eyes
- dry or sticky mouth
- extreme thirst
- dry eyes
- decreased urination.
Along with the fluids expelled from the body go the electrolytes: potassium, sodium, phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, chloride, bicarbonate, and hydrogen phosphate that conduct electricity throughout the body and regulate nerve and muscle function.
Drinking plain water will hydrate but doesn’t replace the outgoing electrolytes and dilutes the electrolytes still in the body.
There are over-the-counter electrolyte solutions you can buy and some are made specifically for children. Sports drinks are not a good option because of the excessive amount of sugar they contain.
Alternatively, coconut water is loaded with electrolytes and is sweet to the taste so your child may be happy to drink it. Or you can make your own electrolyte drink at home—you can find a recipe here.
What to Eat if You Have the Stomach Flu?
Try to eat if you can. Here are some suggestions that will help to keep you hydrated and provide some simple nourishment.
- If you can’t keep liquids down, you may be able to suck on ice chips instead. Avoid giving ice chips to young children to prevent choking.
- Herbal tea can help ease nausea – peppermint, ginger, licorice, rooibos, chamomile, and fennel are good choices. You can add lemon for the vitamin C (the best anti-viral nutrient). Avoid sugary drinks and caffeinated beverages, as caffeine is a diuretic.
- Apple cider vinegar mixed with water can help calm the stomach.
- A paste of cinnamon, cumin, ginger, and honey is effective in relieving acute diarrhea of gastroenteritis. (4)
- Turmeric has been found to reduce intestinal inflammation. (5)
- A BRAT diet: Banana, Rice, Applesauce, Toast. These foods are mild and easy on the stomach. They are also rich in fiber to help firm stools. Bananas contain lots of potassium and apples contain vitamin C, potassium, and magnesium.
- Rice water is an old home remedy to ease upset stomach. Its gentle starch relieves diarrhea and the electrolyte content is hydrating. Research has found that it really works, even in babies (6):
- Boil 2 tablespoons of brown or white rice in 1 cup of water until tender.
- Strain out the rice through a sieve and drink the water at whatever temperature you prefer. Sip slowly.
Foods to Avoid if You Have the Stomach Flu
- Dairy is difficult to digest and is mucous-forming.
- Fatty foods are hard on the stomach and digestion in general.
- Spicy foods can upset a sensitive stomach and exacerbate diarrhea.
- Dietary fiber is great for you—unless you have the stomach flu. Fiber-rich foods (vegetables, fruits, whole grains) stimulate digestion and can irritate your lower digestive tract, which is already under stress.
- Alcohol is acidic and causes inflammation in the stomach.
- Sugar causes inflammation. In some people, spikes in blood sugar can cause nausea, which you probably already have enough of.
- Soda is bad for you under any circumstances and no more so than if you have the stomach flu. Sugar, caffeine, and acids in soda are disastrous for the digestive system. Ginger ale is noted for settling an upset stomach and alleviating nausea but the stuff you buy has little or no real ginger in it and is full of sugar. Try a homemade ginger ale (get the recipe here).
- Processed foods contain various chemicals and additives that can aggravate digestion.
- Artificial sweeteners put extreme stress on the digestive system.
- Acidic foods like citrus fruit and tomatoes can aggravate an upset stomach.
Home Remedies for Stomach Flu
Your immune system is working feverishly (literally) to rid your body of the pathogen. Over-taxing it by trying to go about your daily business can only prolong the illness. Sleep as much as your body needs. You probably won’t feel like doing much else than lying down so listen to your body and take it easy.
2. Cool Compress
If you have a fever, a cool damp cloth on your forehead can bring relief.
A heating pad or hot water bottle can ease abdominal cramping and muscle aches.4. Probiotics
Nothing can help your digestive system more than friendly bacteria to restore immune system balance and help to fight pathogens. Probiotics have been shown to significantly reduce bouts of diarrhea caused by viruses and bacteria. (7)
Dairy can be hard to digest but fermented dairy like plain yogurt or kefir might be tolerable (a recipe for dairy-free and electrolyte-rich coconut water kefir can be found here). Try miso soup and kombucha tea; both are soothing, nourishing, and easily tolerated.
If you’re nauseous or vomiting, the last thing you may want to do is eat. Letting your body purge may seem like the best course of action so go with it. Remember that hydration is still important, so if you can’t bring yourself to drink anything, suck on ice chips. When you’re ready to eat again, take it slowly with small amounts of bland foods and clear liquids.
6. Clear Liquids
If you can drink, do. Hot, cold, or room temperature doesn’t matter—whatever feels good. Avoid caffeine, milk, cheese and alcohol. Bone broth is very nutritious, pre-biotic, and easy on the stomach. Herbal teas and infused water can also help hydrate and ease gastroenteritis symptoms. Sip slowly.
7. Apple Cider Vinegar
Mix 1 tablespoon of ACV and 1 tablespoon of honey in 1 cup of warm water. Drink twice a day, ideally once in the morning and a second time in the evening. This simple drink can help with gas and cramps.
The stomach flu is nasty and can really hit hard. Fortunately, it usually passes in a couple of days. With adequate rest, replenishment of fluids, and gentle nourishment, you can help to relieve the worst of its symptoms.