Although it sometimes carries a similar name, the stomach flu is not caused by the same germs as the flu and doesn’t cause the same symptoms. The medical term for the condition is actually gastroenteritis, which essentially means an inflammation or irritation of the gastro-intestinal tract. The treatments for gastroenteritis will be significantly different than the treatment for influenza, or the seasonal flu.
Any treatment protocols which you may try for the stomach flu must be based on the underlying cause of the irritation, diarrhea and possible vomiting. In some cases gastroenteritis is caused by an allergic reaction to a specific type of food. In other cases stomach viruses, parasites and sometimes even bacteria cause the symptoms. (1)
If the gastroenteritis is caused by an underlying allergic reaction to a specific type of food then the removal of that food, and time for the gastrointestinal tract to rest, will often be enough treatment. Gastroenteritis that is caused by viruses do not have any known cures and the treatment goals are focused on providing supportive care while the body fights the virus. Fortunately, most people with a healthy immune system are able to effectively kill the virus after only one to 10 days. (2)
Gastroenteritis which is caused by an invading parasite is treated by the removal of the parasite from the gastrointestinal system. Many times this particular condition appears to be the same as other gastroenteritis symptoms and it may take close to two weeks in order to be fully diagnosed and an appropriate treatment protocol recommended. (3)
It is the side effects of gastroenteritis, or the stomach flu, which can cause significant damage to the body. Primarily, it is the dehydration caused by an inability to keep fluids in the body because of vomiting and diarrhea. This is especially dangerous in young children, the elderly and people who have already weakened immune systems. Maintaining hydration is the most important aspect of treating viral gastroenteritis to prevent severe loss of fluids.
Individuals who are suffering from the stomach flu, or gastroenteritis, can begin treatment at home. And if the body responds quickly, there is no further need to see your primary care physician. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that families who have infants and young children keep a supply of oral rehydration solution at home at all times. Any medications, including antibiotics, should be avoided unless they are specifically recommended by your physician. (1)
If the symptoms of the gastroenteritis are primarily diarrhea, it is very important to drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration. Adults and children can use oral rehydration fluids (sold at the pharmacy), juice or water. Sports drinks do not replace the nutrients in minerals that are lost during an illness so don’t rely on them.
You can help to settle the gastrointestinal tract by allowing it to rest and not eat for several hours. If vomiting is an issue, then sip on very small amounts of clear liquids or suck on an ice chip to help with dehydration. These small amounts of fluid can be absorbed more quickly and are less likely to upset the stomach.
Once vomiting has stopped for at least four hours you can gradually reintroduce food. Start with very bland foods that follow the BRAT diet. These foods include banana, rice, apples and toast with some bland chicken broth. Avoid any dairy products, caffeine and alcohol as well is getting plenty of rest until recovery is complete.
If vomiting goes on for more than 12 hours, the individual stops urinating or the individual vomits more than five or six times in a couple of hours it is important to seek the advice of your primary care physician. Nausea and vomiting is often triggered from a center in the brain and not directly from the stomach itself. A feedback loop can sometimes triggered, which is recurrent, and even when the virus has completely been cleared from the body, the individual can continue to vomit. Physicians have medications which can be used in order to calm the brain and stop that feedback loop.
Symptoms of dehydration are excessive thirst, dry mouth, dark yellow urine or no urine at all, severe weakness or lethargy and dizziness or lightheadedness. These are all signs and symptoms that an individual should be treated in an emergency room. Dehydration is a symptom of a lack of fluid in the body which is vitally important to maintain life. Your physician may recommends hospitalization for a short time in order to replace fluids through an intravenous line and stop the feedback loop that is causing the nausea and vomiting.
(1) Center for Disease Control and Prevention: Viral Gastroenteritis
(2) Brown Univesity Health Education: Stomach Flu
(3) Pediatric Annals: Parasitic Gastroenteritis