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Diarrhea and the Stomach Flu

Protecting Yourself from Gastroenteritis (Stomach Flu)

The viruses that cause gastroenteritis come from contact with an infected person's stool. You may get it if a person with the virus didn't wash his hands after using the bathroom and then touched the escalator at the mall -- the same escalator you touched before eating lunch. Stomach flu viruses are tough, too. Some can live on surfaces such as counters for months.

It's important to take steps to protect yourself and your family. Here's some advice.

  • Wash your hands. According to experts, this is still the best way to stop a stomach virus. One review of studies found that good hand-washing technique cut the rate of diarrhea by 40%. Make sure to use soap and water and do it thoroughly -- wash your hands for as long as it takes to recite the alphabet. Always wash your hands after using the bathroom, before eating, and after changing a diaper.
  • Use hand sanitizer. If you're not near a sink to wash your hands, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Be aware that hand sanitizer may not be as effective as hand washing at preventing the stomach flu.
  • Wipe down surfaces. If a family member has the stomach flu, wash off high-traffic areas -- such as the bathroom, door knobs, phones, and TV remotes -- with a diluted bleach solution. If it's possible, keep healthy people out of the bathroom the sick person is using.
  • Make sure your kids get their vaccines. Vaccines for rotavirus can protect children from some types of stomach flu. Kids usually get the vaccines before they are age 2.

When to See a Doctor

Most people don't need to see the doctor when they have the stomach flu. But it's a good idea to get medical attention if you or your child has stomach flu and:

  • Is under 3 months old
  • Is over 3 months old and has been vomiting for more than 12 hours or the diarrhea hasn't gotten better after two days
  • Is an adult and the diarrhea hasn’t gotten a little better after two days
  • Has other symptoms, such as high fever or blood or pus in the stool

In rare cases, people with stomach flu need to be hospitalized, usually because of dehydration. In adults, dehydration can cause extreme thirst, decreased urination, dark urine, dry skin, fatigue, and dizziness. In babies and young children, dehydration can cause:

  • Crying without tears
  • Going three hours or more without a wet diaper
  • Fever
  • Dry tongue and mouth
  • Extreme crankiness
  • Sunken fontanel, the soft spot on the top of a baby's head
  • Sunken cheeks or eyes

Anyone with signs of dehydration needs medical help right away.

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WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by David T. Derrer, MD on August 27, 2013

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