Ultimate Guide to the Stomach Flu
The Stomach Flu is one of the worst viruses to hit your home because one, it’s highly contagious and two, the symptoms make you feel miserable. The key to surviving the stomach flu is preventing dehydration. Over the past 30 years, I run into so many people that do not know how to properly care for these types of symptoms. In this guide you will learn how to distinguish between the stomach flu and food poisoning, how to prevent spreading it to other family members, how to care for those sick at home and when it is recommended to seek medical attention. These home care tips have helped my family of 4 survive the stomach flu multiple times and prevent a trip to the urgent care.
What is the stomach flu?
The stomach flu is caused by an extremely contagious gastrointestinal virus called norovirus. It causes gastroenteritis, which is inflammation of the stomach and intestines. In infants, it can also be caused by rotavirus. According the to CDC, there are 19 to 21 million cases of acute gastroenteritis in the U.S. Each year, norovirus causes between 56,000-71,000 hospitalizations and 570-800 deaths, most of which are in young children and the elderly.
Typical symptoms include diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, muscle aches, chills, headache, fatigue, fever and loss of appetite. Symptoms usually resolve in a few days but can last up to 10 days.
What is the difference between the Stomach Flu and Food Poisoning?
The first 2 times the stomach flu hit our household, our whole family got sick at the same time. It was awful, imagine, 2 toddlers and 2 adults all with vomiting and diarrhea at the same time, ugh, that was rough. But this time, it was different. My son and myself were the first ones sick. My husband assumed it was food poisoning because no one else was sick. I ended up snuggling up to my husband at night before bed, like I typically do and sure enough, the next day he was sick with the stomach flu. Sorry honey! So here are some tips to help you distinguish between the stomach flu and food poisoning and hopefully avoid infecting the whole family.
Typical symptoms of food poisoning are:
- Upset Stomach
- Stomach cramps
- Fever (rare but possible)
- Lasts few hours up to a day
- Usually occurs within 6 hours of eating infected dish
Typical Symptoms of Stomach Flu are:
- Upset Stomach
- Stomach cramps
- Muscle aches
- Loss of Appetite
- Symptoms typically last 1-3 days and up to 10 days
- Usually occurs within 12-48 hours after exposure
The big difference between the 2 is the duration of symptoms and the systemic effects. Food poisoning lasts only a few hours up to a day while the stomach flu typically lasts 1-3 days. Also, the stomach flu typically has systemic effects like chills and body aches while food poisoning does not.
When to Seek Medical Attention
While most people with the stomach flu will do fine on their own, sometimes, it is best to seek medical attention. The biggest concern with the stomach flu is dehydration and fluid loss. If you have a baby or small child with vomiting and diarrhea, it is always best to reach out to your child’s pediatrician to let them know your child is ill and speak to the “On-Call” nurse or doctor. Most offices will reach back within 30 minutes. Also, if your gut tells you something is not right, listen to it and seek medical attention at your local urgent care or emergency room.
The below tips are recommended by Dr. Miller from Unity Point Health
Miller recommends watching for signs of severe dehydration:
- Increased thirst
- Dry mouth
- Increased heart rate over 100 beats per minute
- Increased breathing rate
- Dizziness, including when standing from a sitting or laying position
- Passing out
- Dark yellow or amber colored urine
- No urination within the past six to eight hours (during the day)
In addition to severe dehydration, Miller also says the following are causes for concern, and if you experience these, contact your provider:
- Bloody stool/rectal bleeding or blood in vomit
- Vomiting for more than 24 hours
- Fever greater than 104 degrees
- Weight loss
- Severe abdominal pain
- Prolonged symptoms lasting more than a week
- Are currently pregnant
Lastly, call your baby’s doctor right away if your baby:
- Has vomiting lasting several hours
- Hasn’t had a wet diaper in six hours
- Has bloody stools or severe diarrhea
- Has a sunken soft spot (fontanel) on the top of his or her head
- Has a dry mouth or cries without tears
- Is unusually sleepy, drowsy or unresponsive
If any of these symptoms are present, evaluation by a health care professional is needed right away, and IV hydration may need to be administered or possible admission to the hospital.
Home Care Prevention Tips
- Sanitize all high touch surfaces. Those include: counters, door knobs, toilets, showers, bathtub, handles, fridge doors, pantry doors, faucets and sinks with a good cleaning spray that kills viruses. My go-to disinfectant is this No Rinse Seventh Generation Multisurface cleaner. I just spray all the surfaces around the house and it dries on contact. You can also make a DIY solution of 5-25 Tablespoons of bleach to 1 gallon of water. I would add in some essential oils like wild orange or lemon to tamper down the smell. See CDC recipe and tips here.
2) Wash soiled and infected clothing in hot water with a good detergent. Dry on high temperature.
3) Wear gloves when cleaning to prevent washing hands a million times and drying out your skin.
4) Use disposable plates, cups and cutlery to reduce bringing germs into the kitchen from infected family members. At the end of the day I put on some gloves, collect used plates and cups and put them into a trash bag and straight into the outside bin. I like using compostable cutlery whenever possible.
5) Avoid kissing, sharing utensils or food with infected family members to prevent spreading the virus. According to Michigan Department of Community Health, “People infected with norovirus are contagious from the moment they begin feeling ill to at least 3 days after recovery. Some people may be contagious for as long as 2 weeks after recovery.”
6) All family member should follow proper hand washing. Everyone should wash hands for at least 20 seconds with warm water after using the bathroom.
7) It is best for persons infected with the stomach flu to not prepare food for at least 48 hrs, but if you must, because you’re a parent with little ones, then wear a mask and wash hands really well.
8) If you are lucky enough to have 2 bathrooms, use that to your advantage. Use one bathroom for those that are sick and the other for family members that are healthy. This tip helped my teen daughter not get sick.
9) Additionally, many parents and Mom bloggers swear drinking concord grape juice has prevented the stomach flu in their household. They claim it changes the pH in your intestinal tract to inhibit the virus plus has antiviral properties. I did lots of research to see if there were any doctors or studies supporting this but unfortunately there is no research proving that grape juice actually kills norovirus.
Here is what I actually found: A small study from Nutrients shows how grape powder changes the microbiome. Another study on ASM Journals states that a persons genes, diet and microbiome determines how a person responds to norovirus and it is very complex.
Home Care Tips if you Do Have the Stomach Flu
- Stay hydrated! Yes, even if you are vomiting, your body will absorb some liquids. Sip an enhanced electrolyte solution at least every hour. Recommended liquids are Pedialite, Berrilyte, chicken broth and coconut water.
- Rest! Rest! Rest! Lie down and don’t overdo it during this time. Fatigue will hit you hard from the vomiting and diarrhea so be sure to take time off and relax.
- Keep a lined trash can near your bedside or your kids bedside. This tip is a huge life saver!
- To get through the day, Anti-nausea candies like these Queasy Drops or hard ginger candy. My son had nausea for a whole week and the ginger candies helped him get through those first few days back at school.
- After the first day of vomiting, follow the BRAT diet: bananas, rice, applesauce and toast. We like saltines and steamed jasmine rice to help settle the stomach.
- Once your appetite starts to kick in, try a gentle post recovery soup made with Chicken Broth, rice, carrots, zucchini, potatoes and herbs.
- Ease into foods, the first week. I stuck with gentle soups and oatmeal the first few days. It is recommended to avoid greasy and sugary foods the week following the stomach flu as it may increase diarrhea.
- To help form stools, activated charcoal or Pepto-Bismal may be helpful. Do not give children anti-diarrheal medications, unless advised by your doctor. They can make it harder for your child’s body to get rid of the virus.
- Replenish your gut with probiotics. My homemade cashew yogurt is full of friendly bacteria. My favorite probiotics are Innovix Multi Strain Probiotics and Ultra Flora Synergy which I use to make homemade vegan yogurt.
I hope these tips are as helpful to your family as they have been to mine. Wishing you a speedy recovery and good health to you and your family.