How the Stomach Flu Is Treated

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In most cases, stomach flu, also known as gastroenteritis, doesn’t need to be treated by a healthcare provider. Home remedies, like drinking plenty of fluids and eating a bland diet, can help ease symptoms until the illness passes.

While gastroenteritis can be caused by bacteria, fungus, and parasites, viruses like norovirus and rotavirus are the most common causes. In most cases, the term "stomach flu" is used to describe viral gastroenteritis.

Although there are currently no antiviral drugs able to treat the stomach flu, there are certain medications that can make you feel more comfortable as you recover as well.

While not comprehensive, this article lists some of the home remedies, OTC medications, prescription drugs, and complementary therapies that may provide relief from stomach flu symptoms.

Treating the Stomach Flu
Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin

Home Remedies and Lifestyle

Diarrhea and vomiting are common with viral gastroenteritis. In most cases, they will resolve on their own within a few days.

Even so, diarrhea and vomiting can be extremely uncomfortable, so it’s understandable to want to reduce the duration and severity of these symptoms. At the same time, you will want to remain well hydrated to recover quickly and avoid dehydration.

The following simple home remedies can help you navigate the path toward recovery.

Fluids

Diarrhea and vomiting can cause your body to lose a lot of water, so it's important to replenish lost fluids as quickly.

Dehydration is one of the most serious concerns related to stomach flu and something that can land you in hospital if you're not careful.

Here are some of the ways to avoid dehydration if you get stomach flu:

  • Clear liquids: Once the vomiting stops and you can keep liquids down, drink clear fluids like water and broth to start. Slowly add other fluids such as sports drinks and decaffeinated herbal tea. Stay away from alcohol and caffeinated or sugary beverages that can irritate the stomach and make diarrhea worse.
  • Commercial oral rehydration solutions: You can also opt for an oral rehydration solution (ORS) available at most drugstores. These ensure that fluids and electrolytes (like sodium and potassium) are replenished without excess sugar. Some ORS products come in powdered form, while others are sold as ready-to-drink liquids.
  • Homemade oral rehydration solutions: ORS can also be made by mixing a 1/2 teaspoon of table salt and six tablespoons of sugar into 4 1/4 cups of water. It is important to measure the salt and sugar carefully; too much of either can worsen diarrhea.

Diet

It may not be possible to keep food down when stomach flu first strikes. That's OK. Simply keep hydrated and don't try to force down food. That may only lead to vomiting.

When the vomiting stops and you're better able to tolerate food, start by eating bland foods. Eat just a little at a time to avoid overtaxing your stomach.

Many people turn to the so-called BRAT diet, which consists of bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast. These foods tend to be easy on the stomach and help bind stools so that they are less watery.

White rice and white bread work better at binding stools than high-fiber options like brown rice, wild rice, whole wheat bread, or whole-grain bread.

BRAT Diet in Children

The American Academy of Pediatrics advises against the use of the BRAT diet in children with diarrhea and other stomach problems. If the child with stomach flu is able to keep food down, they should be given a normal, well-balanced diet.

Rest

Getting adequate rest is an important and often overlooked part of stomach flu recovery.

Staying home and relaxing can help you recover quicker and prevent others from getting infected. Germs that cause gastroenteritis pass through person-to-person contact, such as shaking hands, limiting interaction with others is best.

Over-the-Counter (OTC) Therapies

Over-the-counter (OTC) medications may help ease many of the symptoms of stomach flu.

Even so, check with a healthcare provider before using any OTC drug on children, pregnant people, older adults, or anyone living with a chronic health condition like diabetes or high blood pressure.

Anti-Diarrheal Drugs

There are two OTC medications that may help ease diarrhea in people with stomach flu:

  • Imodium (loperamide hydrochloride): Available in tablet form, Imodium can be used in adults and children 2 years and over. Imodium can cause drowsiness, constipation, and stomach pain in some people.
  • Pepto-Bismol (bismuth subsalicylate): Available as a liquid, caplet, and chewable tablet, Peptol-Bismol can be used in adults and children 12 and over. Children 2 to 12 years can take Peptol Kids. However, children and teens who have a fever should avoid Pepto-Bismol due to the risk of a serious condition called Reye’s syndrome.

Anti-Diarrheal Drug Warning

Do not use OTC anti-diarrheal drugs if you have bloody diarrhea. This may be a sign of a severe bacterial or parasitic infection, both of which require medical treatment.

OTC Pain Relievers

For aches and fever associated with stomach flu, there are two OTC pain relievers that can help:

  • Ibuprofen: Commonly sold under the brand names Advil and Motrin, ibuprofen is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) that reduces both inflammation and pain. Ibuprofen can promote bleeding and should not be used if there is blood in the stool.
  • Acetaminophen: Commonly sold under the brand name Tylenol, acetaminophen has both analgesic (pain-relieving) and anti-pyretic (fever-reducing) properties.

Anti-Emetics

Anti-emetics are medications that can ease nausea. There are two that may be of benefit to people with stomach flu:

  • Dramamine (dimenhydrinate): This is an OTC antihistamine typically used to treat nausea caused by motion sickness. Dramamine may cause drowsiness, which can help you rest but may also impair your ability to drive or operate heavy machinery.
  • Bonine (meclizine): This is another OTC antihistamine commonly used for motion sickness that has many of the same side effects as Dramamine.

Prescriptions

There are no drugs, prescription or otherwise, that can directly treat any of the different viruses that cause gastroenteritis. Instead, the focus of treatment is placed on alleviating symptoms.

There are few prescription drugs used to treat stomach flu. One exception is prescription anti-emetics that may help ease severe nausea and vomiting.

Options include:

  • Compazine (prochlorperazine): Compazine can be used in adults and children 2 and over. It is available as a tablet, capsule, or liquid. Common side effects include constipation, dizziness, and sweating.
  • Zofran (ondansetron): Zofran can be used in adults and children as young as 6 months. It comes in tablet, liquid, and dissolvable pill form. Side effects include dizziness, drowsiness, or constipation.
  • Phenergan (promethazine): Available as a tablet or delivered by injection, Phenergan can be used in adults and children 2 and over. Side effects include drowsiness, dizziness, and constipation.

Do Antibiotics Treat Stomach Flu?

Antibiotics may be prescribed if the cause of gastroenteritis is bacterial. However, if the cause is viral (as it most likely is), antibiotics will neither treat the infection nor improve symptoms. They may, in fact, make diarrhea worse.

Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)

Some doctors may recommend probiotics to treat viral gastroenteritis. Probiotics are live microorganisms, most often bacteria, that normally reside in your digestive tract.

Taking a probiotic supplement (available in tablet, liquid, powder, or gummy form) may help restore the balance of healthy bacteria in the gut and potentially shorten a diarrhea outbreak.

Be sure to speak with your healthcare provider before using probiotics or any other complementary or alternative medicine (CAM). Just because something is "natural" doesn't mean that it is safe or effective.

A 2018 review published in Complementary Medicine Research urged caution when using CAM to treat viral gastroenteritis, stating that the remedies are "mostly unsupported by scientific evidence."

Summary

Most cases of viral gastroenteritis (stomach flu) do not require treatment by a healthcare provider but can be effectively managed at home. The treatment is focused on easing symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea while avoiding complications like dehydration.

Self-care treatments include rest, rehydration, and a bland diet. Over-the-counter painkillers, anti-diarrheals, anti-emetics, and probiotics may help relieve the symptoms of stomach flu.

Prescription anti-emetics can be used if nausea and vomiting are especially severe.

A Word From Verywell

If you have stomach flu, it is important to seek immediate medical care if the diarrhea or vomiting lasts for more than two days, contains blood, is black or tarry, or causes severe pain.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long does the stomach flu usually last?

    It depends on the cause. For example, stomach flu caused by norovirus usually lasts one to three days, while stomach flu caused by adenovirus can last one to two weeks.

  • How long are you contagious if you have the stomach flu?

    Here too, it depends on the cause. In some cases, you may be contagious even before you feel sick. For example, with norovirus, you can spread the infection to others before symptoms appear and up to two weeks after you feel better.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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