Treating the Stomach Flu

By Andrew Yocum, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
April 13, 2022

The stomach flu can hit you out of nowhere at any time.

Symptoms tend to develop quickly and send you running for a personal space like the bathroom. 

After hugging your pillow or the toilet for hours, you may be wondering if there’s an end in sight.

The good news is symptoms of the stomach flu (or stomach bug) usually only last a few days. 

In the meantime, there are a few things you can do to speed up your recovery from a dreadful case of the stomach flu.

What is Stomach Flu?

Despite the name, the stomach flu (gastroenteritis) isn’t the flu at all.

Influenza (the flu) is a respiratory virus and usually doesn’t cause nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea

Gastroenteritis, or stomach flu, is when your stomach and intestines become inflamed due to a viral, bacterial, or parasitic infection.

When your intestines are inflamed, they don’t work as they should.

As a result, your digestive tract will move food quickly out of your system through vomiting or diarrhea.

Symptoms

Symptoms of the stomach flu vary from mild to severe and usually develop quickly.

The most common symptoms of the stomach flu include:

Less common symptoms include:

Causes

The majority of stomach flu cases are caused by viral infections.

However, sometimes a bacteria or parasite may also be the source of stomach flu symptoms. 

Viral

Typically, you catch a viral stomach flu through contact with an infected person’s stool or vomit.

For example, you may pick it up by a handshake or by eating contaminated food (food poisoning).

You can also contract it by touching a surface with the virus on it, like a doorknob, and then touching your month.

Viruses that cause stomach flu:

Norovirus: Norovirus outbreaks happen most commonly from November to April. In the United States, the virus is the culprit of 19-21 million cases of vomiting and diarrhea illnesses. 

Rotavirus: This virus peaks in the winter and spring months, most commonly infecting children.

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Bacterial

Stomach flu symptoms caused by bacteria are usually the result of ingesting contaminated food.

You may develop symptoms after eating raw eggs, undercooked meat, or unclean produce contaminated with bacteria.

Bacteria that cause stomach flu:

Escherichia coli: Often referred to E.coli, most strains of this bacteria are harmless, but a few can make you quite sick.

Salmonella: This bacterium causes 1.35 million infections a year in the United States. Food is the most common source of this bacterial infection.

Campylobacter: Eating undercooked meat or drinking untreated water are common ways you may become infected with campylobacter.

Parasitic

Parasitic infections are less common in the United States than in undeveloped countries, but Americans are still at risk of infection.

If you ingest food, water, or soil that’s been infected with parasites, it can cause gastroenteritis.

Parasites that cause stomach flu:

Giardia: This parasite spreads easily and causes stomach symptoms such as diarrhea, stomach cramps, and vomiting. 

Cryptosporidium: Also referred to as “crypto,” these microscopic parasites infect both animals and humans. Crypto is the leading cause of waterborne illness in the United States.

Stomach Flu Treatment

Thankfully, the stomach flu doesn’t last long.

The average case lasts just one to three days in adults and children.

Most people recover quickly without the need for a doctor’s visit or medication. 

However, if a parasite or bacteria is how you contracted the stomach flu, your healthcare provider may prescribe antibiotics if your symptoms haven’t lessened after a few days.

While you’re waiting for the stomach flu to run its course, there are a few things you can do to help your body recuperate. 

Rest

Rest is vital after any illness. If you’ve been vomiting, your body will feel weak and tired.

You may feel physically exhausted from dehydration after a bout with a stomach bug.

Even after your sickness has passed, it’s wise to take it easy for a few days as your body returns to normal.

Fluids and Electrolytes 

Diarrhea and vomiting dehydrate your body quickly.

Dehydration is the primary concern if you’re battling a stomach bug.

If you’re able to, keep drinking fluids to replenish the water and electrolytes you’ve lost.

Electrolytes are essential minerals that the body needs to function properly.

To help your body recover after the stomach flu, try sipping on:

  • Water
  • Herbal tea
  • Chicken, vegetable, or beef broth
  • Non-carbonated sports drinks
  • Rehydration solutions (like Pedialyte)

OTC Medication

Medications won’t cure the stomach flu as the illness must run its course.

However, you can take over-the-counter medications to ease your symptoms.

Acetaminophen or ibuprofen can ease body aches and headaches caused by dehydration.

To find relief from diarrhea and nausea, try bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol) or loperamide (Imodium).

Note that some of these drugs might cause changes in the color of your stool. 

Before taking over-the-counter medication, consult with your primary care physician.

Depending on your age and medical history, your doctor may recommend certain over-the-counter medications or prescription medications to ease your symptoms. 

Bland Diet

Stick to bland food if you’re on the mend from the stomach flu.

Once the idea of food begins to sound appetizing, try the B.R.A.T. diet – bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast.

These foods are easy on your digestive system and replenish the nutrients you’ve lost during your illness.

Avoid fatty and creamy foods, which can be upsetting to a sensitive stomach.

Also stay away from caffeinated and sugary beverages as they may worsen diarrhea. 

Other Options

If the stomach flu is causing persistent nausea, try one of these options:

  • Sucking on ice chips
  • Drinking ginger or peppermint tea
  • Wearing anti-nausea wristbands

Stomach Flu Prevention

Good hygiene is the main way to stave off the stomach flu.

If you catch wind that the illness is spreading in your community, take extra precautions.

  • Wash your hands after using the restroom or changing a diaper
  • Eat nutritious food and get plenty of sleep to support your immune system
  • Wash your hands before preparing or eating food
  • Wash fresh produce before consuming it
  • Follow basic food safety guidelines when cooking

If the stomach flu is in your household, it can be difficult to avoid.

But there are things you can do to protect yourself and members of your family from becoming sick.

  • Wash your hands frequently
  • Disinfect areas that may have come in contact with stool or vomit
  • Use a dishwasher instead of hand washing dishes
  • Wash bathroom and kitchen towels
  • Isolate the sick person from the rest of your family
  • Wash the clothes and bedding of your ill family member

Good hygiene is essential when protecting yourself and your family from illness, but it’s sometimes not enough to contain the spread of viral infections.

The rotavirus vaccine can protect children from rotavirus infection.

Consider vaccinating your child and discuss with their pediatrician.

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When to Seek Medical Attention

Call your doctor if your stomach flu symptoms haven’t improved after two to three days.

Additionally, you should seek medical attention if you have:

  • Symptoms of dehydration
  • Blood in your diarrhea
  • Severe stomach pain
  • A fever over 101 degrees Fahrenheit

You should reach out to the affected person’s doctor if that person is:

  • Pregnant
  • An infant or toddler
  • Immune compromised
  • Diagnosed with a complex medical condition
  • Elderly

How K Health Can Help

Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a doctor in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is the stomach flu contagious?
Yes, the stomach flu is contagious. It can be spread from person to person by actions of touch, such as kissing, sharing food, and sharing a drinking glass. People can also spread the stomach flu indirectly by contaminating food, water, and surfaces other people come in contact with.
Will the stomach flu go away on its own?
Yes. Most cases of the stomach flu subside on their own within a few days. If your symptoms persist, reach out to your medical provider.
How long does the stomach flu typically last?
The stomach flu typically lasts one to three days. However, you may have lingering symptoms such as stomach cramps and nausea for up to 10 days following infection. If you're still vomiting or having diarrhea after two days, or if you have symptoms of dehydration, see your doctor.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Andrew Yocum, MD

Dr Andrew Yocum is a board certified emergency physician. He graduated Summa Cum Laude from Kent State University with a Bachelor of Science in Molecular Biology before attending Northeast Ohio Medical University where he would earn his Medical Doctorate (MD).