What is a stomach flu?
Gastroenteritis, also known as the "stomach flu" or "gastric flu", is the inflammation of the lining of the stomach and intestines. It is usually caused by a virus attacking the gastrointestinal system, although it can also be brought about by bacterial or parasitic infections.
The stomach flu, despite its name, has nothing to do with the influenza virus or the flu, which attacks the respiratory system. Also, the stomach flu is often confused with food poisoning, since they have a number of symptoms in common. However, there are distinctions between the two.
Causes of the Stomach Flu
A person most usually catches viral gastroenteritis by ingesting contaminated food or water, by direct or indirect contact with an infected person or a surface that has the virus on it. Examples are by sharing utensils or food with an infected person. Viruses that cause stomach flu can also spread through the fecal-oral route. It happens when an individual eats food handled by an infected person who did not wash his or her hands well enough after going to the toilet. In stomach flu cases, the virus can be found in the stool as well as vomit of the infected person.
The most common viruses that cause stomach flu are:
- Norovirus - This virus is the most common culprit behind foodborne illnesses that can affect both adults and children. While one usually gets infected by ingesting contaminated food or water, noroviruses can also spread from person-to-person. Noroviruses can rapidly infect families and communities, especially people inhabiting or working in confined areas.
- Rotavirus - This is the most reported cause of viral gastroenteritis in children, who pick up the virus when they put their hands or fingers in their mouths after having touched contaminated objects. The infection is especially serious in infants and young children. Infected adults, meanwhile, may show no noticeable symptoms, yet still, carry and spread the disease, making the rotavirus a matter of particular concern in institutional settings. A vaccine shown to be effective in preventing viral gastroenteritis is available in some countries, including the US.
Gastroenteritis is different from influenza. While the stomach flu is associated with the gastrointestinal system, real flu mainly affects the respiratory system. The following are the indicators of gastroenteritis:
- Diarrhea - If there is blood in your stool, it is possible that you have a more severe illness, and not necessarily the stomach flu.
- Abdominal pain or cramps
- Nausea, vomiting, or both
- Occasional muscle aches or headaches
- Low-grade fever
The symptoms of gastroenteritis can persist for as long as ten days. Depending on its cause, the symptoms usually appear after three days and can range from mild to severe.
The symptoms of gastroenteritis are similar to those of bacterial diarrhea, which is why its diagnosis can often be confusing.
When to Seek Medical Attention
Gastroenteritis often heals on its own. However, if vomiting and/or diarrhea persists, or if you detect the following symptoms, seek medical attention right away:
- Lower frequency of urination or low urine volume
- Dry mouth caused by dehydration
- Not producing tears when crying
- Fever over 102 degrees Fahrenheit
- Extreme weakness
- Being weak and irritable
- A soft sunken spot on top of the baby’s head
- Presence of pus or blood in stool or dark and delayed stool
Diabetes and other terminal complications make children lose even more fluids. If your child has other health issues, it is important that you promptly seek medical care.
Symptoms in Infants and Children
Seek medical help immediately if your child has the following:
- Fever above 102 degrees Fahrenheit (38.9 degrees Celsius)
- Irritable and lethargic
- In a lot of distress and pain
- Has diarrhea with blood in it
- Dehydration (You should watch out for signs of dehydration and compare the amount of fluid taken in with that lost through urination.)
Spitting up is normal for children, but vomiting is not. It could be due to a reason that may require urgent medical help.
Note the following signs and symptoms in your child and call the doctor:
- Recurrent vomiting for several hours
- Has not wet his or her diaper in six hours
- Has a blood-stained stool or frequent diarrhea
- A sunken fontanel (a soft spot on top of your baby's head)
- Dry mouth or no tears produced when crying
- Unusually sleepy or unresponsive
Great caution should be observed when handling gastroenteritis patients. Avoid frequent contact with them and wash your hands as often as possible.
Preventing stomach flu involves practicing good hygiene such as proper handwashing as well as getting adequate rest. The following are additional prevention strategies:
- Using the dishwasher instead of washing dishes by hand
- Washing hands with soap and water instead of using a hand sanitizer
- Isolation of sick people. Try to keep them in one place as much as possible to contain the disease.
- Disinfecting handles of shopping carts and other things touched by strangers before touching the objects.
- Sanitizing and disinfecting countertops, beddings, and clothing.
Remain hydrated since the main problem associated with gastroenteritis is the loss of body fluids.
Water is the most recommended fluid in cases of dehydration. The only shortcoming it has is that it cannot replace lost minerals and salts. Aside from water, oral rehydration solutions are prescribed.
Electrolyte solutions or oral rehydration solutions maintain the electrolyte balance in the body as well as replace lost minerals. These solutions can be purchased from a local pharmacy and can be bottle-fed to young children. Note that although some sports drinks work equally well for preteens, teens, and adults, they should not be given to infants.
Milk, caffeinated drinks, or highly acidic drinks can result in stomach problems. Introduce the recommended fluid in low doses to prevent vomiting.
Introduce food slowly. If your child can take some liquid without vomiting, slowly introduce solid food, but blend it with a liquid. Progressively, add some soft, easily digested food such as rice, bananas, potatoes, or plain yogurt. Later on, it may be much easier to introduce cooked vegetables and meat with minimal fat. Avoid feeding your child spicy, fried, acidic, or fatty foods since they can make your child develop stomach problems.
Avoid giving your child any type of medication. Do not purchase over-the-counter medications without a doctor's advice since they may worsen the illness. Antibiotics are ineffective against some strains of viruses. Antidiarrheal medications can prolong the infection and can become life-threatening for infants.
If your child has a fever, acetaminophen or ibuprofen will bring it down. Other than these, serve fluids and blended foods.
Stomach Flu and Pregnancy
Stomach flu during pregnancy should be treated as soon as possible before you become dehydrated. During pregnancy, your immune system is suppressed and becomes susceptible to viral attacks. Gastroenteritis will not be directly transmitted to your child. However, dehydration will consequently harm your child.
Recovery from a Stomach Flu
Even though stomach flu is distressful, most people heal without developing serious symptoms. The main problem many people face is staying hydrated during the illness. There is nothing much you can do after being infected with stomach flu other than drinking lots of fluids and taking medicine. However, any of the following symptoms may prompt a visit to a general practitioner:
- Blood in vomit
- Diarrhea with blood in it
- Fever above 102 degrees Fahrenheit
- Dehydration symptoms or the inability to retain fluids
Risk Factors Associated with the Stomach Flu
Stomach flu affects people all over the world of any race, age, and background. The groups of people who are more prone to developing stomach flu are:
- Young children: Young children have a weaker immune system and those who are in daycare facilities or elementary schools are the ones who are most at risk of catching the stomach bug.
- Older adults: As people get older, their immune system becomes less competent and are thus, more vulnerable to opportunistic diseases. If they live next to or with infected persons, they can easily contract the stomach flu.
- People who regularly go to places where groups of people come together: Confined places, where groups of people converge are conducive environments for the stomach flu to get passed from one person to another.
- Anyone with an incompetent or suppressed immune system: This can be caused by a terminal illness such as AIDS, certain chronic diseases, or cancer therapy. Having a weaker immune system means you become more vulnerable to infections.
Each virus that causes gastroenteritis has its own time when activity is at its prime. In the northern hemisphere, for example, the norovirus and rotavirus are more likely to be highly infectious around October until April.
It may be hard to diagnose gastroenteritis, but a diagnosis is mostly made through the following:
- Physical examination
- Presence of comparable incidences in the community
- Examining symptoms
Rapid tests done on the stool are able to identify a norovirus or rotavirus, but there are no tests that can be done to detect other strains of viruses that lead to stomach flu. If your infection is not caused by either a norovirus or rotavirus, additional tests may have to be performed on your stool to enable your doctor to identify the virus, bacterium, or parasite that has infected you.
Severe dehydration is the main problem associated with gastroenteritis. Due to the severe loss of fluids and some of the essential salts and minerals, a person's electrolyte balance can be disturbed. By taking enough fluids to replace the fluid lost through diarrhea and vomiting, dehydration can be prevented.
Young children, older people, and those with an incompetent immune system may sometimes become severely dehydrated if the rate of fluid loss is greater than its intake.
In any case, if dehydration becomes severe, it can be life-threatening, and hospitalization may be required so that fluids can be replaced intravenously. If dehydration becomes severe, seek immediate medical attention so it does not become fatal.
Is it food poisoning or stomach flu?
The two are usually confused due to the similarity in their symptoms. Eating food containing or carrying bacteria, parasites, or viruses are what causes food poisoning. Cross-contamination, which is what happens when these harmful organisms transfer from one surface to another, is usually how these organisms end up contaminating food. Once contaminated food is ingested, the harmful organisms attach themselves to the intestinal lining, multiply, and secrete toxins that produce the symptoms of food poisoning.
Ready-to-eat foods (such as salads), foods like meat, dairy products, and sauces not kept at the right temperature, and raw or undercooked foods are particularly at risk of being contaminated.
Two of the most common types of bacteria associated with food poisoning are E. coli and Salmonella.
Symptoms of Food Poisoning
The symptoms of food poisoning occur within six hours after the consumption of contaminated food. Stomach virus symptoms, meanwhile, take days to manifest. Symptoms of food poisoning include nausea, diarrhea, stomach pain, vomiting, cramps, and fever. The resulting sickness lasts from some hours to days. However, it most often clears within one day.
You can quickly tell whether you have food poisoning if the people who consumed the same food as you are also ill. However, if the identification of a specific cause fails, the diagnosis of food poisoning becomes challenging. Testing your stool for the presence of germs causing the disease will be ordered by your doctor.
Preventing Food Poisoning
Make sure to keep food at the right temperature. Avoid consuming food that has been kept out for more than two hours. When handling raw meat, wash your hands. Do not consume raw meat or eggs and defrost frozen food in the refrigerator.
How long does the stomach flu last?
The symptoms of the stomach flu are experienced for 1-3 days. Diarrhea can go for up to 10 days. Vomiting ceases within 24 hours if treated properly.
When symptoms persist for more than ten days, vomiting goes on for over 24 hours, or when there is blood in your vomit or diarrhea, seek medical attention immediately. Watery diarrhea and persistent vomiting can cause dehydration, so getting rehydrated intravenously may be necessary.
What can you do?
When the lining of the intestines becomes inflamed, the digestion of food becomes a problem. You are, therefore, required to let your GI (gastrointestinal) tract rest, although there will be a temptation to consume fluids to replace the ones you vomited.
Always take it slow. Once the vomiting stops, drink small sips of electrolyte-replacement drinks. When you feel like eating, consume foods that are easy to digest such as rice, toast, and crackers. Foods that are greasy, spicy, or sugary, should be excluded from your diet. However, you can go back to consuming such foods once you are completely healed.
Since stomach viruses are contagious, wash your hands before you eat, when preparing food, and after using the bathroom. When you feel like you are sick, take good care of your body and contact your doctor if the symptoms persist. However, these symptoms are present only for a short period of time and usually resolve on their own.
Ginger and Peppermint for Stomach Flu
Ginger can assist in digestion and reduce inflammation. It can provide relief to bloating as well as stomach cramps. Ginger tea can fight the virus responsible for the flu as it has natural antiviral properties.
Making Ginger Tea
- Add one teaspoon of ginger (powdered) into a cup of water.
- Boil the contents for 5 minutes, then let it steep for another 10 minutes.
- If you are using ginger root, strain the tea.
- Drink the tea daily for 2-3 times to achieve some relief.
You can also take ginger capsules, chew raw ginger, or drink ginger ale to get some relief. You can also spice up your meals with ginger.
Peppermint can treat bloating and gas as well as soothe an upset stomach. Peppermint is most useful in treating an upset stomach when it is used in tea or as a tea by itself.
To make mint tea, use fresh mint leaves. Boil the leaves and strain the infusion. Add a sweetener and stir. Drink it for 1-2 times a day to get relief from the symptoms.
Is stomach flu contagious?
The answer is yes and no. Some viruses that bring about stomach flu are contagious like the adenovirus and norovirus. Contagious bacteria include Shigella, E.coli, and Salmonella. Contagious parasites include Giardia lamblia and Cryptosporidium.
Non-contagious stomach flu causes include antibiotics, food allergies, and toxins. Some prescribed medications have gastroenteritis as their side effect.
How long does the stomach flu stay on surfaces?
Norovirus can stay on a surface for up to a maximum of two weeks. Avoid contaminating surfaces if you already have the virus. Equally, non-infected persons should clean their hands thoroughly with soap and water upon touching surfaces that might be contaminated. Clean surfaces using diluted bleach and water solution to reduce the possibility of an infection.
To know the other causes of stomach flu, it is recommended that you research on each particular agent to assist you in determining how long it will stay viable and contagious.
Can you get stomach flu twice?
Infection can happen twice because there are different viruses that cause the stomach flu. For this reason, there is a high probability of acquiring the infection for the second time.
Nevertheless, you will not be infected with the same type of flu. However, they can have similar symptoms. The reason is that your immunity builds up after the first incidence of stomach flu and assists in fighting the virus when it tries to enter your system for the second time. You can acquire another stomach flu if a virus, which is different from the first, infects you since your body will not recognize such virus.
For example, if you acquire an infection of stomach flu today, and it is treated and disappears tomorrow, then reappears after some days, it indicates that it is the same type of flu. On the other hand, if you have the stomach flu this month and get it again next month, it implies that you have contracted stomach flu caused by a different virus.
How contagious the stomach flu depends on its cause, but you can generally expect the flu to be contagious for up to two weeks or more.
The norovirus causes you to be contagious as soon as you develop stomach flu symptoms. The virus lasts for some days. You, however, can be contagious for up to three days after the symptoms have cleared. Symptoms appear one to two days after exposure to the virus. In other cases, you can be contagious for about two weeks after improvement of the signs.
The rotavirus mainly affects children. Here, you become contagious before the symptoms start developing. No signs are shown three days after exposure to the virus. Adults may not show symptoms, but still be contagious. The period of contagiousness can go for up to two weeks after you recover.
The two viruses can spread through contact with contaminated surfaces, objects, and food. Washing your hands with soap and water prevents the spread of the virus. Furthermore, the use of hand sanitizers also assists in preventing the distribution of the virus. Medical doctors recommend vaccines (RotaTeq and Rotarix) for infants.
Are the stomach flu (gastroenteritis) and the flu (influenza) the same infection?
Both the flu (influenza) and stomach flu (gastroenteritis) are brought about by viruses. However, the viral genus and species are different for each condition.
The major viruses that give rise to the stomach flu (gastroenteritis) are noroviruses. The viruses that bring about the flu (influenza) are primarily influenza B and influenza A, and their subtypes.
Stomach flu involves problems associated with the gastrointestinal tract, whereas influenza involves problems associated with the respiratory tract. The two medical conditions are quite different.
Get Enough Rest
Having the stomach flu can be a very uncomfortable situation. To fight the infection, your body needs to rest. Ensure that you sleep as required by your doctor and limit your activities and movement. For example, you can lounge on your couch if you are not in bed and vice versa. What most people do not realize is that the body, even while at rest, continues to fight the infection and repair any damage that might have occurred at a cellular level.
A Flu Shot Won't Help
When people say "the flu", they mean influenza. Flu shots are for influenza and will not protect you against the viruses responsible for viral gastroenteritis.
- The stomach flu, despite its name, has nothing to do with the influenza virus or the flu, which attacks the respiratory system.
- It is important for children and affected individuals to remain hydrated since the main problem associated with gastroenteritis is the loss of body fluids.
- Symptoms of a stomach virus are experienced for 1-3 days. Diarrhea can go for up to 10 days. Vomiting and nausea are relieved within 24 hours if treated properly.