What to Do When You Get the Stomach Flu

Think you have the "stomach flu"? In reality, it's probably not the flu at all. The flu (or more accurately, influenza) is a respiratory virus that causes fever, body aches, and fatigue—but rarely stomach problems. Instead it's most likely a gastroenteritis—a nasty virus that causes vomiting and diarrhea.


Check Your Symptoms

Woman with an upset stomach. Image Source/Getty Images

Nausea, vomiting. and diarrhea are the symptoms most often cited when people think they have stomach flu. But gastroenteritis can be caused by a number of different viruses and sometimes even bacteria, and so you may have a range of symptoms.

Symptoms of the stomach flu may include:

  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Weakness
  • Muscle Pain
  • Weight Loss
  • Decreased appetite

Know When to See a Doctor

Know when you need to see a doctor for abdominal pain. PhotoAlto/Michele Constantini/Getty Images

Most people with vomiting and diarrhea don't need to see a doctor. But it's important to know when you do.

See your doctor or seek medical attention if you have any these symptoms:

  • Vomiting longer than 24 hours
  • Blood in your vomit
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Vomiting with severe headache and stiff neck
  • Signs of dehydration—dark or infrequent urine, dry mouth

Although most people recover from stomach bugs without medical treatment, sometimes these symptoms are caused by more serious problems that do require medical intervention.

Some people may become dehydrated from vomiting and having diarrhea. Some cases of dehydration need to be treated with medications or IV fluids—even if the cause is a simple stomach virus.


Treating Your Symptoms

A man vomiting. Tom Merton/OJO Images/Getty Images

Vomiting and diarrhea are two of the most unpleasant symptoms you experience when you get sick. No matter the cause, these two problems can bring even the strongest, healthiest person to their knees (literally and figuratively).

Unfortunately, many people make mistakes in how they attempt to treat vomiting and diarrhea. We all just want it to stop but if you do certain things—like trying to eat or drink too soon after vomiting—you could make it worse.

It is best to let your stomach rest and not eat or drink anything for 15 to 20 minutes after vomiting. Then, drink fluids (small sips at a time every 10 minutes) of water, sports drink, or pediatric electrolyte drinks so you replace electrolytes and prevent dehydration. Over-the-counter medications are unlikely to help when you have stomach flu, and they can be dangerous to give to children.

Diarrhea tends to last longer than vomiting but there are things you can do to minimize the problems it causes. As with vomiting, it's important to stay hydrated. You are likely to best tolerate a bland, starchy diet. Over-the-counter medications such as Pepto-Bismol, Imodium, and Kaopectate may help. However, these medications should not be given to children without specific instructions from the child's healthcare provider.


Use a Bland Diet

Homemade apple sauce
What Should You Eat When You Have the Stomach Flu?. Kirk Mastin/Aurora/Getty Images

When your gastrointestinal system is out of balance due to a stomach virus, digesting greasy, spicy, rich or complex foods can be difficult and make you feel worse. Sticking to simple bland foods is the best way to allow your system to recover and heal as quickly as possible.

One traditional formula was the BRAT diet, an acronym for Bananas, Rice, Applesauce (or Apples) and Toast. It is intended to be used for just a short period, such as 48 hours or less.

But newer recommendations (especially for children) are for a bland diet of a variety of starchy foods that are easy on the stomach.


Should You Take Probiotics for an Upset Stomach?

Should you take probiotics?. Maarten Wouters/Stone/Getty Images

Probiotics are highly touted and frequently recommended to help restore the body's GI system when you have the stomach flu or any other problem causing vomiting or diarrhea. But do they actually work?

Many people recommend them—including a lot of healthcare providers. However, in the U.S., probiotics are still sold and marketed as natural supplements. They cannot legally make any claims about curing or treating any conditions or diseases. Due to the increasing interest in probiotics, many studies are in progress about what benefits they may offer. Hopefully in the future we will better understand these products and how they might help us recover from various illnesses and ailments.

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