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What Are Stomach Flu Symptoms?

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I think we can all agree that some of the most uncomfortable symptoms to come down with during sickness are vomiting and diarrhea. You often feel like you are tied to the nearest bathroom, and developing a fever or body aches can make things even worse. These may indicate symptoms of the stomach flu.

The stomach flu (also known as gastroenteritis) can be caused by various viruses or bacteria that can attack your gastrointestinal system. It is important to note that the same virus that causes influenza (seasonal flu) does not cause stomach flu.

Stomach flu symptoms have a 24- to 48-hour incubation period and typically last one to three days. However, some outlier cases can continue for up to 10 days. Common stomach flu symptoms include:

  • Diarrhea (often watery)
  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Muscle aches
  • Low-grade fever

Doctors can test your stool and send it to the lab to identify bacteria associated with food poisoning and viruses associated with gastroenteritis. This is not typically done unless you are experiencing severe symptoms or strongly suspect food poisoning as the cause. Treatment for both illnesses may be similar, typically requiring lots of fluids and bed rest.

How do I avoid the stomach flu?

The stomach flu is contagious, with symptoms typically appearing one to three days after exposure. If you believe you or a member of your family has the stomach flu, it is best to stay home until you or they are fully recuperated to avoid spreading it to others. If you are experiencing a fever, it is recommended to wait until the fever is gone for at least 24 hours before returning to a normal routine.

If you know the stomach flu is going around, whether at school or work or maybe within your own home, you will want to take extra precautions to make sure that you don't get it or risk spreading it further.

  • Wash your hands frequently. If you are in a public setting and are not near a sink, carry hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol to use
  • Wipe down frequently touched surfaces, including shopping carts if you are in public or high touch surfaces at home, like countertops and light switches
  • If a family member is sick, try to restrict them to one bathroom, if possible
  • Wash clothes and bedsheets of your sick family member on the highest heat setting that the items will allow

How is the stomach flu different from food poising?

Distinguishing between the stomach flu and food poisoning is difficult because of their similar symptoms. However, food poisoning can be determined as the culprit if other people get ill from the same food as you. This is more difficult to decide whether you believe that you became sick from food consumed in a restaurant. Calling the local health department or restaurant to see if there are similar reports of gastrointestinal illness might aid in determining if food poisoning could be the cause.

Food poisoning symptoms, on average, tend to be more severe than symptoms of a typical stomach virus. They may appear right after a person eats the contaminated food, or not until days later. Common symptoms of food poisoning include:

  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Stomach pain
  • Diarrhea (which may be either watery or bloody)
  • Fever

Other symptoms can include problems with the nervous system, such as blurry vision or dizziness. However, these problems are less common.

What are the best at-home treatments for the stomach flu?

You cannot do much for the stomach flu except wait for it to run its course. However, here are a few tips we recommend ensuring you stay healthy and possibly avoid a trip to the doctor's office:

  • Drink enough liquids so that your body does not get dehydrated. Dehydration is when the body loses too much water
  • Eat small meals that are easier to digest – consider starchy foods or cereal or foods such as bananas, potatoes, yogurt and soup
  • Rest if you feel tired
  • Since most infections are caused by a virus, the stomach flu cannot be cured by medications such as antibiotics. If you are experiencing a fever or body aches, it is best to talk to your doctor and see what pain relievers you can take to help with the symptoms. It is important to keep in mind that ibuprofen can cause issues with the kidneys, which is not good if you are dehydrated. Acetaminophens (Tylenol) are less likely to irritate the stomach, but those with liver disease should avoid them

Should I see a doctor if I have the stomach flu?

Patients should consult a doctor or nurse if they for any of the following conditions:

  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Difficulty holding down food or liquid for 24 hours
  • Vomiting blood or experiencing bloody stools/bowel movements
  • Experiencing a fever higher than 100.4°F (38°C)

The most important thing to do when you think that you have the stomach flu is to drink plenty of fluids and make sure symptoms subside. Always contact your doctor if you believe that symptoms are getting more severe because they might require medical attention.

Need to speak with a doctor? Ochsner Anywhere Care offers immediate access to a healthcare provider from your smartphone, tablet or computer. Start your video visit here.

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