Stomach Flu 101

The dreaded stomach flu—we’re all very familiar with this feisty, but normally short-lived bout of vomiting, diarrhea, chills and stomach pain.

But what causes it? What are the treatments? And is there a way to stop a full household takedown when one member of the family gets it?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), various types of viruses can cause viral gastroenteritis, more commonly known as the stomach flu. Two of the most common you have probably heard of: norovirus and rotavirus.

Norovirus is highly contagious and affects both children and adults, resulting in approximately 21 million illnesses each year. The norovirus is spread through contact with contaminated food, water, surfaces, or with someone who’s got it, according to the CDC.

Rotavirus is normally associated with infants but can be contracted by adults who care for children, seniors and adults who are traveling. Prior to the introduction of the rotavirus vaccine in 2006, almost all children in the United States were infected with rotavirus before their fifth birthday.

The best way to protect yourself and your family against the stomach flu at home and while traveling is diligent hand washing. According to the CDC, alcohol-based hand sanitizers can be used in addition to hand washing, but they are not a substitute for washing with soap and water.

While the stomach flu is miserable, most gastroenteritis symptoms resolve within the first few days, says Dr. Ece A. Mutlu, associate professor of medicine at Rush University and a gastroenterologist.  “As doctors, we do not classify any diarrhea as chronic unless it lasts for more than three weeks,” Mutlu says.  “It is therefore important to remember that 99 percent of all gastroenteritis symptoms resolve without having to take any medications or tests.”

According to Dr. Mutlu, because there is a risk for dehydration associated with the stomach flu, oral hydration solutions such as Pedialyte, Ceralyte or Gatorade are recommended before relying on other fluids, even water or juice. Pregnant women should be especially diligent about remaining hydrated during a bout of the stomach flu, she advises.

“In the case of nausea, actually not eating solid foods for a few days and trying remedies such as ginger could help,” Dr. Mutlu says. “When the symptoms are starting to get better, it is also important to start solid foods slowly and to follow a diet that has little fat. Fat is especially difficult to absorb soon after gastroenteritis, and can worsen diarrhea. Recommended low fat foods to start with are peeled apples, bread, bananas, boiled plain rice and plain pasta.”

Lastly, though tempting as it may be to take an over-the-counter anti-diarrheal, Mutlu advises against it.

“Diarrhea in this case could be thought of as the body’s attempt to get rid of the microbes that cause it, and taking antidiarrheal may result in the infectious agents remaining in the gastrointestinal tract.” However, high fevers above 101.3 or blood in the stool mixed with the stool might be a sign of something beyond the simple kind of gastroenteritis and might require medical attention, she adds.

What’s the deal with cruise ships and noroviruses?

If you have been on a cruise, you have seen first-hand the rigorous efforts to combat flu outbreaks on board, including ubiquitous hand sanitizer dispensers. According to the CDC, there are three primary reasons noroviruses are often associated with cruise ships:

1. The virus is tracked by health officials on cruise ships, so outbreaks are documented faster

2. Confined spaces and close living increase the risk due to group contact

3. A steady stream of passengers coming and going increase the risk of contamination