Diarrhea and the Stomach Flu
Every year, millions of Americans come down with the "stomach flu," or viral gastroenteritis. It can cause diarrhea, vomiting, cramps, fever, and headache. It’s also highly contagious. What treatments will make life with the stomach flu a little less awful? More importantly, how can you avoid getting it in the first place? Here are some answers.
What Is the Stomach Flu?
The stomach flu is not a single disease. Instead, it's just a nickname for viral gastroenteritis, which is itself caused by a number of nasty viruses, such as noroviruses, rotaviruses, and adenoviruses.
These viruses target the digestive tract and cause inflammation of the stomach and intestines. The most awful symptoms -- diarrhea, vomiting, and cramps -- are actually your body's defense mechanisms. Your body is trying to drive the virus out.
Stomach flu can develop at any time of the year, but it's most common in the fall and winter in the U.S. Although unpleasant, stomach flu is rarely serious. Symptoms usually last for 1 to 3 days and sometimes longer. The greatest risk -- especially in babies and older people -- comes from dehydration. Untreated, dehydration can be dangerous.
Despite the name, stomach flu has nothing to do with the "true" flu, influenza. Influenza causes body ache and fever. It almost never causes diarrhea or vomiting in adults. Rarely, it can trigger vomiting in children.
Treating Gastroenteritis (Stomach Flu)
There is no cure for the stomach flu. Antibiotics don't help, because it’s caused by viruses, not bacteria. For the most part, you just have to wait it out. In the meantime, there are some things you can do to make yourself more comfortable and prevent complications.
- Drink more. It's important to increase fluid intake when you are vomiting or have diarrhea. Adults should aim to get one cup of fluid every hour. Children need 1 ounce of fluid every 30 to 60 minutes. Drink slowly, since too much at once could worsen vomiting. If your child tends to gulp, give her a frozen popsicle instead.
- Drink wisely. When you have diarrhea, drinking more water may not be enough. You're losing important minerals and electrolytes that water can't supply. Instead, ask your doctor about giving your sick child an oral rehydration solution such as CeraLyte, Infalyte, Naturalyte, Pedialyte, and generic brands. (If your baby is still nursing or using formula, keep feeding him as usual.) Adults can use oral rehydration solutions or diluted juices, diluted sports drinks, clear broth, or decaffeinated tea. Sugary, carbonated, caffeinated, or alcoholic drinks can make diarrhea worse, so be sure to dilute sugary beverages if you drink them.
- Don't eat only bland foods. The old advice was to stick with a liquid diet for a few days and then to add in bland foods, such as the BRAT diet of bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast. That's fine for the first day or so of stomach flu. However, doctors say that you should return to your normal diet as soon as you feel up to it. BRAT foods aren't bad. They just don't provide the fat and protein that you need. Sticking with them too long could actually slow your recovery.
- Get the right nutrients. Look for foods with potassium (such as potatoes, bananas, and fruit juices), salt (such as pretzels and soup), and yogurt with active bacterial cultures. Even a little fat could help, because it slows down digestion and may reduce diarrhea. If you feel up to it, add a pat of butter or some lean meat to your next meal.
- Use over-the-counter medications. They're not necessary, but some people find relief in medications for diarrhea and vomiting. Just use them with care, and read and follow the label instructions. Never give a medication for diarrhea or vomiting to a child unless a pediatrician says that you should.
- Rest. Give your body time to recover.