With headlines like “Dreaded ‘stomach flu’ wreaks havoc on families — and it’s only going to get worse”, the stomach flu is giving many families a rocky start to 2017. Stomach flu treatment focuses primarily on dealing with the symptoms while the virus runs its course, although a 2010 study suggests that probiotics taken early may shorten symptoms by about a day.
What Causes the Stomach Flu?
First off, the “stomach flu” isn't really the “flu” at all. (It still makes you feel lousy.) It is caused by viruses, but not the influenza virus. Viral Gastroenteritis (stomach flu) is the second most common illness in the United States. It causes millions of cases of diarrhea each year.
Heart Spring breaks down the symptoms and causes of the stomach flu.
Stomach Flu Symptoms
The main symptoms of Stomach Flu (Viral Gastroenteritis) are watery diarrhea and vomiting. Other symptoms are headache, fever, chills, and abdominal pain. Symptoms usually appear within 4 to 48 hours after exposure to the virus and last for 1 to 2 days, though symptoms can last as long as 10 days.
Stomach Flu Causes
The viruses that cause Stomach Flu (Viral Gastroenteritis) damage the cells in the lining of the small intestine. As a result, fluids leak from the cells into the intestine and produce watery diarrhea. Four types of viruses cause most Stomach Flu (Viral Gastroenteritis).
Rotavirus is the leading cause among children 3 to 15 months old and the most common cause of diarrhea in children under the age of 5 years. Symptoms of rotavirus infection appear 1 to 2 days after exposure. Rotavirus typically causes vomiting and watery diarrhea for 3 to 8 days, along with fever and abdominal pain. Rotavirus can also infect adults who are in close contact with infected children, but the symptoms in adults are milder. In the United States, rotavirus infections are most common from November to April.
Adenovirus occurs mainly in children under the age of 2 years. Of the 49 types of adenoviruses, one strain affects the gastrointestinal tract causing vomiting and diarrhea. Symptoms typically appear 1 week after exposure. Adenovirus infections occur year round.
Caliciviruses cause infection in people of all ages. This family of viruses is divided into 4 types, the noroviruses being the most common and most responsible for infecting people. The noroviruses are usually responsible for epidemics of Stomach Flu (Viral Gastroenteritis) and occur more frequently from October to April. Infected people experience vomiting and diarrhea, fatigue, headache, and sometimes muscle aches. The symptoms appear within 1 to 3 days of exposure.
Astrovirus also infects primarily infants, young children, and the elderly. This virus is most active during the winter months. Vomiting and diarrhea appear within 1 to 3 days of exposure.
How Long is the Stomach Flu Contagious?
Heart Spring also states, “People who no longer have symptoms may still be contagious, since the virus can be found in their stool for up to 2 weeks after they recover from their illness. Also, people can become infected without having symptoms and they can still spread the infection.” I suspect I last became infected after spending the evening with family members who had “just gotten over the flu”, since my symptoms appeared roughly 48 hours after contact.
Stomach Flu Treatment at Home
Remember, if your symptoms persists more than 48 hours or are causing undo pain or other major problems, consult your doctor, as it may be a sign of a more serious illness.
#1 – Stay Properly Hydrated
Skip anything with lots of sugar, caffeine or artificial anything (sports drinks, coffee, sodas, undiluted fruit juice, etc). Stay with soothing drinks like mint or chamomile tea, or restorative ones like coconut water or bone broth. Broth contains nutrients and minerals that aid healing. For my broth recipe, shown at the top of the post in a batch of chicken soup, visit How to Make Homemade Chicken Broth.
Coconut water is high in electrolytes. If you want to have fruit juice for the little ones, please dilute it so that there's not as much sugar. Go for color free/additive free electrolyte drinks if you must. Small sips at regular intervals are easier on the abdomen than large quantities at once.
#2 – Eat or drink your probiotics
Live culture foods help populate your digestive tract with healthy bacteria and other friendly beasties. This can help your body crowd out the troublemakers and speed your recovery.
Yogurt, milk kefir, water kefir, kombucha, and lacto-fermented foods all contain bacteria that promotes a healthy immune system. You can, of course, purchase these items from the store or buy the little capsules, but it's really easy to make you own at home.
Again, use small servings, especially with the kombucha, which can have a detox effect. No more than 2-4 ounces per day of kombucha tea. Yogurt and kefir are gentler and safer in larger amounts (up to eight ounces per day).
#3 – Try Some Chia
Chia seeds are hydrophilic, which means they absorb water (up to 12 times their weight in water). You can use this property to your advantage by thoroughly hydrating the seeds before consuming them, and then using the seeds to carry water into you body. The gel-like coating that forms around the hydrated seeds soothes your digestive tract and slowly releases the water into your body as they pass through your system. In my case, I placed some yogurt and milk kefir into my Vitamix, poured in a tablespoon of chia, mixed slightly, and then let it sit and soak for 10 minutes before finishing the smoothie preparation. If you want something more basic, try chia fresca.
Chia Fresca recipe
1 tablespoon of dry chia seeds
10 ounces water.
2 teaspoons lime juice (or one tablespoon lemon juice)
Two teaspoons sugar or 1 tsp stevia powder
Mix chia seeds and water. Let stand ten minutes. Add juice and sweetener and mix well.
#4 – Comfort yourself
Take a soothing warm shower to relax sore muscles. If you can bear it, try a warm bath with a cup of Epsom salts. (At the risk of TMI, be careful if you are coping with diarrhea, as the muscle relaxation could result in “poop soup”.) The warm bath option is probably best for late in the illness. By that point, fatigue and muscle cramping have led to significant muscle soreness, but the worst of the vomiting and/or diarrhea has passed. Place a hot pack on the lower back or abdominal area to help ease cramping.
Beyond these options, if your stomach can keep it down, eat lightly of nourishing real foods. The “stomach flu” is viral, so taking antibiotics will not help. Again, if you are experiencing severe pain or other complications, please consult your healthcare practitioner, as serious food borne illness may sometimes present in a manner that resembles stomach flu.
Why I Don't Recommend the BRAT Diet
Typically, what I've seen recommended for stomach flu treatment are options like the BRAT diet (Bananas, Rice, Applesauce, Toast), and hydration with products like Gatorade. A more recent stomach virus treatment diet variation is the BRATY diet – Bananas, Rice, Applesauce, Toast, Yogurt.
While the BRAT diet is chosen to be non-irritating, evidence suggests that it may not help you heal, and may even slow the process of healing. In an article from Emergency Medicine News, they state (emphasis mine):
Over the past 10 years, however, a consensus has developed that this dietary restriction is a suboptimal choice because it is low in protein, fat, and energy content. This limited intake is not considered helpful to the body's healing or immune response to infection.
They go on to explain that:
“…many studies have shown that unrestricted diets do not worsen the course or symptoms of mild diarrhea. For moderate to severe diarrhea, avoid fatty foods and foods high in simple sugars (including sweetened teas, juices, and soft drinks). Appropriate foods include lean meats, yogurts, fruits, and vegetables, as well as complex carbohydrates like rice, wheat, potatoes, bread, and cereals.”
Robin, one of our readers, made another good observation about the problems with the BRAT diet on the Common Sense Home Facebook page:
“I read the article and want to add that the “BRAT” diet is intended to slow or stop diarrhea. It's basically a diet of low-fiber (read: constipating) foods. The purpose of diarrhea – when caused by a virus or bacteria – is to help rid the body of that virus or bacteria. This is why the diet can drag out the illness. It simply gives those microorganisms more time in the digestive tract to hang out and multiply.”
More Cold and Flu Remedies
If you've found this post helpful, you may also enjoy the other posts in this series:
- Thieves Vinegar – Immune Booster and Germ Killer
- Probiotics for Colds and Flu – Fewer Symptoms, Faster Recovery Time
- Knock Out Cold and Flu Germs with Essential Oils
- The Best Vitamins and Minerals for Fighting Colds and Flus
- Best Cold Remedies – Herbs and Spices – Plus a Secret Weapon
Originally posted in 2012, updated in 2015, 2017.