Stomach flu: Everything you need to know
Causes, symptoms, and cures for a stomach flu
Stomach flu is an extremely common disease, affecting tens of millions of Americans every year. How can you know if you are suffering from one? Read on to learn all the essential information.
What is a stomach flu and what causes it?
The term “stomach flu” is actually a misnomer, as the disease is not caused by the influenza virus. The medically correct term is viral gastroenteritis, which is usually produced by a norovirus, although rotaviruses are responsible for many cases in children. These viruses are transmitted through remnants of fecal matter, vomit, or saliva picked up off of public surfaces such as tables, doorknobs, and uncooked foods. Washing your hands frequently and thoroughly is the best way to prevent viral gastroenteritis, but here are some of the most common symptoms in the case of infection.
Viral gastroenteritis usually develops slowly and progressively (unlike the rapid and explosive symptoms of food poisoning), often comprising several of the following symptoms:
- Stomach pain
- Low-grade fever
When to talk to your doctor
Since stomach flu is caused by a virus, antibiotics have no effect and so should not be used, and in most cases, the symptoms will subside within 2-5 days. This is an important distinction to make from food poisoning, which is usually caused by bacterial toxins. However, talk to your doctor if any of the following symptoms arise, as this may be an indication of a more serious infection:
- Bloody diarrhea
- Blood in vomit
- Fever greater than 104°F
- Vomiting for more than two days, or inability to hold down liquids to do excessive vomiting
Children and infants
Special considerations must be made for viral gastroenteritis in children and infants, as their smaller body sizes and weaker immune systems expose them to a greater risk of serious disease. Call your doctor if your child exhibits any of the following symptoms:
- A fever greater than 102°F
- Abnormal lethargy or irritability
- Severe pain or discomfort
- Bloody diarrhea or vomit
In both children and adults, dehydration is the most serious complication of viral gastroenteritis. Excess diarrhea and vomiting cause the body to lose water along with electrolytes, which in extreme cases can require hospitalization. This can produce early symptoms, which can be effectively treated at home, or advanced symptoms, which indicate severe dehydration and merit talking to your doctor:
Mild dehydration symptoms
- Dry mouth
- Decreased urine volume/dark urine
Severe dehydration symptoms
- Swollen tongue
- Sunken fontanel (soft spot) in infants
- Sunken eyes
- No urine
- Extreme sleepiness
The mild dehydration normally produced by viral gastroenteritis can be easily treated by drinking electrolyte replacement drinks such as Pedialyte. It is unadvisable to drink excessive amounts of water, as this only further dilutes the electrolytes remaining in the body. Instead, drink small amounts of water regularly throughout the day, supplemented by Pedialyte or, if not available, Gatorade.
What to do next
If you believe you have a stomach flu, there are a variety of ways to lessen the severity of your symptoms and to soften the blow to your gastrointestinal system.
To see what steps to take to treat your stomach flu, click here.