What is the stomach flu?

The stomach flu is an infection that is actually not caused by influenza. The correct medical term is viral gastroenteritis.

Since it is a viral illness, antibiotics do not work, and may even make someone more ill. In most cases, it goes away without treatment, other than drinking plenty of fluids.

What are the symptoms?

The main symptoms are diarrhea and/or vomiting, but some people also experience headaches, fevers, abdominal cramping and dizziness. Symptoms begin one or two days after exposure, and last up to 10 days.

How can it be prevented?

Thorough hand washing, especially before and after eating, toileting, or food preparation, is the best preventive measure for viral illnesses, including viral gastroenteritis.

Wash hands for at least 20 seconds, with plenty of soap and water, including between the fingers. Other prevention measures include avoiding exposure to others who are sick, and not sharing food or drinks.

How should it be treated?

First, people with the stomach flu should avoid exposing others to the illness. If they can, they should stay home, at least while having the worst symptoms. This is especially true for those working with infants and small children, elderly, or with food preparation.

If they are suffering from both vomiting and diarrhea, they may want to refrain from eating or drinking for a few hours, then start slowly, with fluids only. This allows stomachs to settle. Sucking on ice chips, drinking clear sodas or ginger ale and non-caffeinated sports drinks usually works best at first.

When starting to eat foods again, they should start with bland, easy to digest foods, such as saltine crackers, toast, bananas, rice, applesauce and boiled or baked chicken.

One acronym to remember is the BRAT diet, which stands for bananas, rice, applesauce and toast. Avoid caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, and fatty or highly seasoned foods, as well as most over-the-counter pain medications, such as aspirin. These can upset one’s stomach more.

The Center for Disease Control does not recommend any medications be taken for this illness unless directed to do so by a medical professional.

Is the stomach flu dangerous?

Viral gastroenteritis is only dangerous in infants, elderly, and those who are unable to drink enough fluids to stay hydrated. If victims of the stomach flu have a family member in one of these groups, they should seek medical care early in the disease to prevent hospitalization.

There is also a vaccine available to prevent the most common cause of viral gastroenteritis in infants and children, the Rotavirus.

Parents can ask their child’s pediatrician about this vaccine during well-child visits.

For children, electrolyte solution or a homemade oral rehydration solution fluid should be used instead of plain water. Electrolyte popsicles are also available at most grocery stores.