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What Is the Stomach Flu?

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Updated June 18, 2012

The stomach flu, or gastroenteritis, is the second most common illness in the United States. It is actually not related to the flu at all. It is usually caused by a virus that attacks the intestinal tract and causes swelling and discomfort. It can also be caused by spoiled or contaminated food, a side effect of a medication, or other more serious illnesses.

Stomach Flu Symptoms

Symptoms include:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal Pain
  • Fatigue or tiredness

Treatment

No treatment is usually necessary for the stomach flu, but occasionally people will become dehydrated from the amount of vomiting and diarrhea.

Infants, children, older adults and people with weakened immune systems are most likely to suffer from dehydration when they have these symptoms. Depending on the severity of the dehydration, a combination of therapies may be needed. A couple of medications ARE available by prescription that can help stop or decrease the vomiting. If a person is already severely dehydrated, he may need to receive IV fluids to help get rehydrated.

When you are vomiting, you should not try to eat or drink anything right away. Letting the stomach rest for about 15 minutes is usually helpful. Then trying small sips of water or an electrolyte drink (such as Pedialyte or Gatorade) every 5 to 10 minutes will help ensure that the stomach is not overloaded and induce vomiting again. If small sips are tolerated, you can then slowly increase the amount you are drinking.

After taking nothing but fluids for several hours, you can advance the diet to bland foods such as crackers, toast and rice. This is the best diet as long as you are still having symptoms of the stomach flu. It is important to avoid greasy and spicy foods because they will only make the symptoms worse. Also, children should avoid drinking fruit juices and sodas when they have diarrhea or are vomiting because they will also make the symptoms worse.

If you or your child have a fever with the stomach flu, Tylenol or acetaminophen is the best way to treat the fever unless you have liver problems. Other fever reducers can be harder on the stomach and children under 18 should never be given aspirin.

When to Seek Medical Attention

Most episodes of stomach flu do not require medical treatment and will go away on their own within a couple of days. However, some symptoms could indicate an illness other than the stomach flu for which you should seek medical attention right away. These include:

  • Vomiting blood
  • Large amounts of blood or mucous in the stool
  • Confusion
  • Lightheadedness or fainting when standing
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • A child who is unusually sleepy or difficult to wake up
  • Accompanied by a fever > 101 F (call your doctor)
  • Dehydration
  • Persistent vomiting lasting 2 days or longer

Find out more about when you should see the doctor for vomiting and diarrhea.

Prevention

Preventing the stomach flu is difficult because it is very contagious. The best way to prevent it is by good handwashing. You should also avoid sharing drinks and eating utensils with someone who is sick. Since many people in many different places can have gastroenteritis, it is easy to pick up anywhere. These tips should help you stay healthy and avoid those nasty symptoms.

Sources:

"Gastroenteritis." National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases 13 Feb 08. National Institutes of Health. 21 Feb 08.

"Viral Gastroenteritis." National Center for Infectious Diseases Respiratory and Enteric Viruses Branch 03 Aug 06. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 21 Feb 08.

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