How the Stomach Flu Is Treated

Profile of a young woman vomiting into a toilet bowl

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In This Article

In most cases, viral gastroenteritis (commonly known as stomach flu) doesn’t need to be treated by a physician. Home remedies, like getting plenty of fluids and eating a bland diet, can treat symptoms until the illness passes. For people who have a digestive disease or another serious illness, however, seeking advice from a doctor might be needed to avoid complications.

Diarrhea or vomiting that lasts more than a few days, contains blood or mucus, is black or looks like coffee grounds, or causes severe pain, is a reason to seek medical attention as soon as possible. 

Home Remedies and Lifestyle

Diarrhea and vomiting from viral gastroenteritis are common and in most cases, will resolve on their own in a few days. It tends to be uncomfortable, of course, so it’s understandable to want to try to shorten the duration and lessen the severity of symptoms.

Staying comfortable and hydrated is going to be important while battling and recovering from viruses that cause the stomach flu. 

Fluids

Diarrhea and vomiting can result in losing a lot of water from the body, so avoiding becoming dehydrated is important. It’s unlikely that a healthy person will become dehydrated from a day or two of vomiting and diarrhea, but watching for signs of dehydration in those who are vulnerable to it is important.

Clear liquids: Once vomiting stops and liquids will stay down again, drink clear liquids like water and broth (such as chicken broth or vegetable broth) to start. Slowly add other drinks such as sports drinks and herbal tea can help with staying hydrated. Staying away from caffeinated drinks, alcohol, and sugary drinks is also usually recommended to avoid making symptoms worse.

Store-bought oral rehydration solutions: In some cases, using an oral rehydration solution (ORS) may also be helpful. ORS can be bought at most drug stores. Some come in packets, in powder form that is then mixed into water. Others are sold as ready-to-drink liquids.

Homemade oral rehydration solutions: ORS can also be made from ingredients you have in the kitchen already. A simple ORS can be made by mixing a half-teaspoon of table salt and 6 tablespoons of sugar into 4¼ cups of clean water (which is about a liter of water, although using a little more won’t hurt anything). It is important to measure the salt and sugar properly; avoid using too much since this can worsen diarrhea.

Diet

When vomiting is occurring, it may not be possible to keep down much food, if any at all. That's OK, focus on staying hydrated.

When vomiting stops and food is staying down again, eating bland, starchy foods may help. At first, people with gastroenteritis may not have much of an appetite, so it will be important to eat something that seems appetizing and won’t cause more vomiting.

Many people go back to the so-called BRAT diet, which stands for bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast. These foods tend to be easier on the stomach and may help bulk up stool and make it less watery.

Some points to remember about eating BRAT foods:

  • Avoiding brown or wild rice; white rice works best.
  • Avoid breads that contain too much fiber (such as whole wheat, nuts, or seeds). 

For children, there has been concern from healthcare professionals that the BRAT diet isn’t nutritious enough. It is no longer recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics for use in cases of the stomach flu.

Consulting with a pediatrician is important, but it is now recommended to feed kids their normal diet as long as they want to eat and the foods with stay down. The BRAT diet is not recommended for long-term use in either children or adults because it does not provide enough nutritional value. 

Rest

An important, but perhaps overlooked, part of recovering from the stomach flu is getting enough rest. Stay home from work or school, sleep or get as much rest as possible.

Avoiding being around people who are not sick is important to stop the spread of the infection and staying in a quiet, calm environment where rest can happen may help with recovery. 

Over-the-Counter (OTC) Therapies

Over-the-counter medications may help with symptoms but it’s important to check with a physician about using them, especially for children, the elderly, or those who live with other medical conditions. A physician can help decide which over-the-counter products might ease symptoms, though none of these will be a cure or will help in getting over a viral infection quicker.

Anti-Diarrheal Drugs

Two types of anti-diarrheal medications available over-the-counter are Imodium (loperamide hydrochloride) and Pepto-Bismol (bismuth subsalicylate).

Imodium may cause drowsiness and is available for use in adults and children, but should not be used in children under the age of 2 and should not be used if there is blood in the stool.

Pepto-Bismol shouldn’t be used in children and teens who have a fever because of the risk of developing a serious condition called Reye’s syndrome. It may also cause a side effect of dark stool.

An anti-diarrheal may or may not help in slowing down stools from the stomach flu and in some cases, they are not recommended. Ask your doctor before taking an anti-diarrheal.

OTC Pain Relievers

For aches and fever, pain killers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) might be helpful, for those that can take these drugs.

Ibuprofen may carry a risk of bleeding for some people with certain medical conditions so it is important to check with a physician if there is any concern.

Acetaminophen should be used with caution in people who have more than 2 alcoholic drinks a day and care should also be taken to avoid using more than one medication with acetaminophen in it at a time. Reading ingredient labels and checking with a pharmacist can be helpful to avoid taking too much acetaminophen, which is associated with liver damage.

Anti-Emetics

Medications that can help stop vomiting are called anti-emetics; some are available over-the-counter.

Dramamine (dimenhydrinate) is an antihistamine marketed for treating motion sickness but it might also be used for treating nausea from other causes. Dramamine may cause drowsiness, which can help in getting rest but can impair the ability to drive or do other activities.

Bonine (meclizine) is another antihistamine medication that’s often used for motion sickness but may also be helpful in treating general nausea. Bonine could cause drowsiness, so caution is advised when driving or taking part in other activities that require alertness.

Probiotics

“Friendly" bacteria, called probiotics, that are ingested, either by eating them or by taking a supplement, have been studied in viral gastroenteritis. There’s currently no good evidence that they work for the stomach flu or any printed guidelines on their use for treating or preventing diarrhea. Consult a doctor for advice about the use of probiotics for treating diarrhea or other conditions. 

Prescriptions

In some cases, if vomiting and nausea are severe, a physician may prescribe medications to help with these symptoms.

Compazine (prochlorperazine) is a prescription anti-emetic. Some of the more common side effects can include constipation, dizziness, and decreased sweating. It is contraindicated in elderly people who are experiencing psychosis and dementia.

Zofran (ondansetron) is another anti-emetic that may be prescribed, especially in children over the age of 2. Some of the potential side effects are dizziness, drowsiness, or constipation.

Phenergan (promethazine) is an antihistamine that may be used to treat nausea. It isn't used in children under the age of 2 because it may cause shallow breathing. Phenergan is associated with potential side effects of drowsiness, dizziness, and constipation.

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Article Sources

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  • How to make oral rehydration solution (ORS). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2019.

  • Prescriber’s Digital Reference. Loperamide hydrochloride - Drug Summary. PDR, LLC. 2019. 

  • Rehydration Project. Oral Rehydration Solutions: Made at Home. Rehydrate.org. 2 Jan 2012. 

  • Rehydration Project. ORS Solution: A special drink for diarrhoea. Rehydrate.org. 4 Jul 2014.