What is the stomach flu?
- The stomach flu (gastroenteritis) is an infection of the stomach and intestines. Though it is referred to as the “flu” it is not the same as influenza. Influenza does not always affect the gastrointestinal tract, and most influenza symptoms involve the respiratory tract.
- Infection of the stomach and intestines is referred to as gastroenteritis.
- Stomach flu is usually caused by viruses, but it also can be caused by bacteria or parasites.
Are the stomach flu and food poisoning the same thing?
Food poisoning and the stomach flu are not the same thing. There are many types of food poisoning that are not infectious. Food poisoning and the stomach flu share many of the same symptoms, including
However, food poisoning comes on pretty quickly after eating contaminated food, and usually it goes away within a few hours to days. Gastroenteritis can last for up to 10 days.
Is the Stomach Flu Contagious?
There are a variety of causes of the stomach flu (gastroenteritis). Unfortunately, the most common causes are contagious, for example:
- Bacteria, for example, E. coli, Salmonella, and Shigella
- Viruses, for example, norovirus and adenovirus
- Parasites, for example, Giardia lambia and Cryptosporidium (also known as “Crypto”)
What are the signs and symptoms of the stomach flu?
Signs and symptoms of the stomach flu include:
What should you eat or drink if you have the stomach flu?
- Fluids: Diarrhea and vomiting can be dehydrating. Make sure you take in plenty of water, sports drinks, or other clear liquids. Take small sips. Infants should get plenty of breast milk, and toddlers can drink electrolyte solutions such as Pedialyte.
- Ice chips: If you are having trouble keeping fluids down, try sucking on ice chips to help rehydrate. Don’t give ice chips to small children, as they can be a choking hazard.
- BRAT diet: BRAT stands for Bananas, Rice, Applesauce, and Toast. These foods are bland and binding, which can make your stools more firm. Bananas also contain potassium which can help replace nutrients lost from vomiting and diarrhea.
- Tea: Caffeine-free teas can help replenish lost fluids, and some varieties, such as peppermint, may calm the stomach, and ginger, may help ease nausea. Add lemon to get a little extra vitamin C. (Avoid caffeine as this can act as a diuretic, making you urinate and lose fluids you need to hydrate.)
- Apple cider vinegar: Some people report this helps ease nausea and stomach upset.
- Cinnamon and turmeric: Both these spices are reported to help relieve symptoms of gastroenteritis.
What natural or home remedies or over-the-counter (OTC) help soothe and cure the stomach flu?
When you have a stomach bug, there are several things you can do to help relieve symptoms.
- Rest: Most people need to rest for a few days to let the illness work its course.
- Heating pad: A heating pad may help relieve abdominal cramping.
- Acetaminophen (Tylenol): Take for pain or fever. This is recommended over aspirin or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which can upset the stomach.
- Over-the-counter (OTC) anti-diarrheal medications: Loperamide hydrochloride (Imodium) or bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol) can help relieve diarrhea.
- Probiotics: Lactobacillus casei GG and S boulardii may be helpful in some cases of viral gastroenteritis, and can help with watery diarrhea. Yogurt often contains these probiotics. Choose low fat or fat free yogurt, if you can tolerate dairy products.
- Zinc supplements: These may reduce the severity and duration of stomach flu.
- Acupressure: Finger pressure is used to stimulate trigger points on the body that may help relieve nausea and vomiting; specifically, pressure point P-6 (also called Neiguan) is a point on the inner wrist that may be massaged.
Before trying any alternative or herbal home remedy, consult your doctor.
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What foods should be avoided when you have the stomach flu?
As described previously, when you have the stomach flu, you want to eat bland and binding foods such as the BRAT diet. Avoid foods that will contribute to symptoms, including:
- Dairy products: Many people are lactose intolerant, which can cause diarrhea. If you have gastroenteritis, you may temporarily have a hard time digesting the lactose in milk, cheese, and other dairy products.
- Fatty foods: Greasy, fatty foods can be hard on the stomach even when you feel well. Fatty meats, creamy foods, and even nuts can all contribute to feeling full which may aggravate an upset stomach, and they can stimulate the digestive tract, causing loose stools.
- Spicy foods: Foods with heavy, hot spices such as chili, hot pepper, and garlic, may aggravate your symptoms and upset your stomach even more. In addition, many spicy foods are cooked in oil, making them fatty as well.
- Caffeine: Caffeine acts as a diuretic, which will cause you to urinate and lose fluids, and you could become dehydrated. When you are already dehydrated from vomiting and diarrhea, you want to stay hydrated. Caffeine can also cause loose stools.
- Fiber: Usually, fruits, vegetables, and beans are good for you. But when you have diarrhea, fiber can aggravate already loose bowels, especially in people who are not used to eating fiber regularly. Stick to the binding foods suggested in the BRAT diet.
- Alcohol: Alcohol can cause irritation and inflammation of the stomach lining (gastritis) and the digestive tract, and can stimulate the production of gastric acid, which you want to avoid when you already feel nauseated.
- Sugar: Consuming sugar in foods or drinks can cause a spike in blood sugar levels. In some people, this can cause nausea. Sugary foods are also often fatty, adding a double-whammy to aggravate symptoms.
- Soda: Colas contain a lot of caffeine, which acts as a diuretic. However, non-caffeinated sodas contain chemicals and are acidic, which can also irritate the stomach. The carbonation may also cause you to feel more full and to belch, which can aggravate nausea.
- Acidic foods: Citrus fruits (orange, grapefruit, etc.), citrus juices, pineapple, and tomato products have a lot of acid that can irritate the stomach and cause acid reflux and further upset the stomach.
- Processed foods: Many pre-packaged and processed foods are high in fat, sugar, preservatives, and artificial colorings. All of these can aggravate an already upset stomach or worsen diarrhea, especially in individuals sensitive to these ingredients.
- Gluten: Gluten is a protein found in wheat and other grains such as barley, rye, and oats. Some people are sensitive to this protein, and it can cause diarrhea, stomach pain, and bloating, so these people may find avoiding products with gluten will help ease symptoms.
- Artificial sweeteners: The sweetener that often causes digestive problems, even in healthy people, is called sorbitol. It is often used in diet foods and sugarless gum, and can cause gas, bloating, and diarrhea.
Medically Reviewed on 5/20/2019
Alexandraki, I.A., MD, MPH., et al. “Acute viral gastroenteritis in adults.” UpToDate. Updated: March 1, 2019.
American Academy of Family Physicians. “BRAT Diet: Recovering From an Upset Stomach.” Updated: March 14, 2017.
Acheson, D.WK., MD, FRCP. “Differential diagnosis of microbial foodborne disease.” UpToDate. Updated: Apr 12, 2016.
Gouvernement du Québec. “Foods to Eat When You Have Gastroenteritis.” Oct. 30, 2018.
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. “Acupressure for Nausea and Vomiting.” Sept. 11, 2017.
Tablang, M.V.F., MD. “Viral Gastroenteritis Treatment & Management.” Medscape. Updated: Jan. 8, 2018.