Table of Contents
- Understanding Stomach Viruses
- Symptoms of a Stomach Flu
- Causes of Stomach Viruses
- Do I Have Food Poisoning or a Virus?
- Conventional Treatment
- Natural and Home Remedies
- Remember to Focus on Hydration
- When Should I See a Doctor?
If you have ever been struck down by unexpected vomiting and multiple trips to the bathroom in just a few hours, the chances are high that you have had a stomach virus.
When you start feeling ill all of a sudden, you want answers quickly that can help you feel better.
Our guide can help you understand what causes stomach viruses, how to prevent them, and what to do should you start feeling the telltale symptoms.
Norovirus is the most likely culprit for your stomach flu, and because many people get this illness when it is cold outside, it is often called the “winter vomiting bug” (1).
Stomach flu or stomach virus is highly contagious, and the chances are high that, if you live or work closely with someone who is infected, you will likely become infected, as well.
If you unlucky enough to contract this bug, you will want to start feeling better fast.
While this virus usually passes through your system quickly and lasts less than two days, you still want to manage your symptoms and assist your recovery.
Natural remedies can help you bounce back soon from a stomach virus and return to your life quickly.
Understanding Stomach Viruses
Any type of vomiting or diarrhea illness is known as gastroenteritis.
While many refer to this as the stomach flu, gastroenteritis is very different than influenza, which is the type of flu that causes fever, body aches, respiratory symptoms, and other problems.
Gastroenteritis can be caused by a number of factors, including parasites, viruses, bacteria, and reactions to unclean water or food.
If you experience sudden gastrointestinal distress, it is likely gastroenteritis.
Because gastroenteritis is inflammation of the stomach or intestines, nearly all its symptoms are related to digestive problems.
Symptoms of a Stomach Flu
Viral gastroenteritis, or a stomach virus, can cause unpleasant symptoms that keep you close to home and the bathroom.
- Diarrhea or watery stools;
- Abdominal pain or cramps;
- A headache;
- Loss of appetite;
- Low-grade fever.
Once you have been infected, you will likely see symptoms appear and then resolve themselves within one to three days.
Symptoms can range from severe to mild depending on a number of factors.
If something other than norovirus causes your infection, you may experience symptoms longer, but in general, stomach flu lasts just a few days.
And while you may notice that your gastrointestinal distress improves over the first few days, other symptoms, such as fatigue and loss of appetite, may linger after a bout with one of these bugs.
Causes of Stomach Viruses
A number of viruses can cause the stomach flu, and the main two culprits are norovirus and rotavirus.
Norovirus is the leading cause of viral gastroenteritis in both adults and children.
Most who contract norovirus suffer from diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach pain, while fever and headaches can sometimes occur.
Symptoms develop between 12 to 48 hours after exposure to the virus, and most people recover within one to three days.
The norovirus is transmitted primarily through contaminated water or food, or through person-to-person contact.
Transmission is also possible by touching infected surfaces, or through the air.
Most often, norovirus is caused by bad hygiene or unsanitary food preparation.
When someone has the virus and does not wash their hands properly, the fecal matter remains, and can be transmitted to food, skin, or surfaces (4).
Norovirus affects nearly 700 million people worldwide each year, and results in over 200,000 deaths annually, mostly of children in developing countries.
Once you have norovirus, you remain contagious for up to two weeks, even after your symptoms resolve and you feel better.
Proper hand washing and hygiene are essential to preventing the spread of the virus.
Rotavirus is another common stomach virus, affecting primarily infants and children.
Nearly every child on earth will contract rotavirus before they are six years old, and once you have had the virus, you begin to develop immunity, which is why it is rare for adults to contract this particular virus.
Like norovirus, it usually passes quickly (5).
If you contract one of these viruses and come down with the stomach flu, you become contagious to others, and most of these viruses are highly contagious.
Avoid sharing food, drinks, or eating utensils with anyone.
If someone is caring for you while you are sick, or you are caring for someone with a stomach virus, wash your hands thoroughly many times per day, clean all surfaces thoroughly, and minimize your contact with them if at all possible.
Be careful not to touch your own eyes, mouth, or nose until you have washed your hands well (6).
It is also possible, although not as likely, to contract norovirus from undercooked food, usually shellfish, and from raw vegetables or fruits.
Anything that is contaminated with the virus and you then consume can make you ill.
Gastroenteritis of all types can be caused by other food-borne pathogens like Salmonella, E. coli, Campylobacter, and even parasites like Giardia.
Those most likely to be severely impacted by stomach virus symptoms include anyone with immune system problems, young children, and the elderly.
Severe dehydration is the primary cause of problems for those with a stomach virus.
Avoiding dehydration while ill is, therefore, crucial to overcoming this virus quickly.
Because they are so virulent, stomach viruses are known to wreak havoc on closed and semi-closed environments like nursing homes, schools, daycare centers, hospitals, and cruise ships.
If you are sharing a space with many other people for extended periods, your risk of contracting a stomach bug like norovirus is high (7).
Stomach viruses are highly contagious.
It takes just a few particles of the virus to make you ill, and these viruses can stay active on surfaces and skin for some time.
Even after you are feeling better, you can still pass the virus to others for up to two weeks (8).
Do I Have Food Poisoning or a Virus?
It is actually very hard to differentiate between a stomach virus and food poisoning.
First, they have similar symptoms and incubation periods.
Second, they are usually treated the same.
Finally, stomach viruses are sometimes a type of food poisoning, and some food poisoning results in a stomach virus.
Most stomach virus infections occur from person-to-person exposure, so they are not technically food poisoning, which requires ingestion of the food-borne pathogen.
Regardless, treatment is usually the same, as are prevention methods.
The critical thing to know is what to do if you start showing any of the symptoms listed earlier, which indicates you likely have a stomach virus.
When you are considering how to prevent the stomach flu, remember that the influenza virus does not cause stomach flu, so getting a flu shot will not protect you against a stomach virus.
While there is a vaccine for rotavirus, there is no current vaccine for norovirus (9).
Treatment of a stomach virus does not involve antibiotics since the disease is not caused by bacteria but instead by a virus.
In fact, taking antibiotics when you do not have a bacterial infection can lead to antibiotic resistance, which can be deadly.
The antiviral medications used to treat influenza are likewise not effective at treating stomach viruses, as different microbes cause them.
There is current research dedicated to developing antiviral medications specifically for treating norovirus, to be used in immune-suppressed patients and those in healthcare facilities (10).
In most cases, any medications given to treat stomach viruses are to control the symptoms, not the virus itself.
Medicines to control vomiting and diarrhea are common, although these should be taken with caution.
While unpleasant, both of these symptoms are caused by your body trying to rid itself of the virus.
By preventing these actions, the virus could stay in your system longer, and cause more problems.
Most doctors will advise you to let the virus run its course.
If you have a fever, you may wish to take an NSAID like acetaminophen to reduce it.
Staying hydrated will be important, as will rest.
For the majority of people with a stomach virus, self-care and proper hydration and nutrition are the most you can do while the virus works its way out of your system naturally.
Natural and Home Remedies
Treating a stomach virus is relatively straightforward and similar for nearly everyone.
Because the virus tends only to cause symptoms for a few days, patience and time are often the best treatment you can use.
If you are looking to alleviate some of your symptoms or start feeling better sooner, though, there are several things you can do at home that will help assist your recovery.
The two most common symptoms of a stomach virus are diarrhea and vomiting.
Both of these remove a lot of water from your system.
It is essential that, if you have a stomach virus, you stay hydrated.
In addition to drinking water, you can also drink clear liquids like tea, broth, and coconut water.
Drinking clear fluids in place of solid food is also providing your digestive system the rest it needs to repair and recover from the inflammation caused by the virus.
If you do not feel you can drink, suck on ice chips or sip water in small amounts.
Drink decaffeinated beverages, broth, herbal tea, or electrolyte drinks to replace the nutrients lost from your gastroenteritis.
Get Plenty of Rest
Besides staying hydrated, getting sufficient rest is probably the kindest thing you can do for your body while it is recovering from a stomach virus.
Because this type of illness passes naturally and usually quickly, allowing your body to take care of itself by resting and waiting can be extremely beneficial.
Resting allows your body to focus all of its energy on ridding itself of the virus, and your immune system and digestive tract can also relax and heal.
Because you will likely be dehydrated, you may also feel fatigue, and resting can help you feel better sooner.
Be Gentle to Your Digestive System
The symptoms of a stomach virus can cause you to lose your appetite entirely, or make it difficult to keep food in your body. If you do not feel like eating while you are sick, do not eat.
Drink plenty of clear fluids, but do not worry about eating until you start to feel stronger.
Once you are ready, reintroduce solid foods slowly, and focus on foods that are easy to digest and help your body return to its normal functioning.
The BRAT diet is a great place to start.
BRAT stands for:
Because these foods are easy to digest and help relieve diarrhea, they are often recommended for anyone with gastroenteritis.
Eating simple foods such as these for a few hours or the first day will also allow your stomach and intestines to quiet the inflammation caused by the virus.
This diet is not recommended for long-term use, especially for young children (13).
Other foods you can slowly introduce but are easy to digest include broiled or baked chicken, gelatin, rice, and plain pasta.
Eggs and lean meats can also provide you with needed protein.
Make sure everything is cooked well.
Fruits and vegetables are okay, too, as long as they are cooked and easy to digest.
Salty foods, like crackers and pretzels, make tasty snacks when you are recovering, as they replenish salt lost during dehydration.
Make sure you do not stop drinking clear liquids, though.
Avoid These Foods
When your system is in recovery, it is essential you give it the time it needs before reintroducing hard-to-digest foods.
These foods are notorious for their impact on digestion, and they can even make some of your stomach virus symptoms worse.
While recovering, try to avoid:
- Dairy products
- Tomato products
- Spicy foods
- Greasy or fatty foods
Sometimes, a stomach virus can cause a low-grade fever.
Vomiting can also make you feel flushed or overheated.
Try a cool compress to help you feel better while you are resting.
While this treatment will not actually cure your virus, it will provide a little bit of comfort, and help you stay focused on getting better and resting during your recovery.
Many herbs have natural healing properties that make them perfect for helping you recover from a stomach virus.
Here are our best suggestions for using herbal treatments to ease your digestive symptoms.
- Tea made from ginger or peppermint will help calm nausea and keep you hydrated. Ginger has been used for centuries to treat nausea, and peppermint’s natural soothing taste will calm most stomach trouble (14). Drink tea that is slightly cool, and always sip your beverages when you have stomach troubles.
- Ginger capsules or ginger ale are also very calming, herbal treatments for your upset stomach.
- Chamomile tea is another good herbal drink. Chamomile is a natural calming agent, and it can help ease stomach cramps.
- Fennel is also helpful for treating gastrointestinal issues. Fennel tea is available, or you can chew fennel seeds to enjoy relief from the bloating, cramps, and gas that may be caused by a stomach virus.
- Apple cider vinegar can help ease an upset stomach or nausea. Mix one tablespoon with eight ounces of water, and sip slowly. You can also add one tablespoonful of apple cider vinegar to a cup of warm water, and mix in a small amount of honey. Drinking this every few hours can alleviate some of your symptoms.
- Spices like cinnamon and turmeric have properties that help with gastroenteritis symptoms, but avoid using too much, as doing so can be a shock to a sensitive system. Add one teaspoon of ground cinnamon to two cups of boiling water. Let this steep for five minutes, then strain through a fine strainer or cheesecloth. Add honey to taste. Let cool slightly before drinking.
- Lemon can also help you feel better sooner when you have the stomach flu. The Vitamin C in the lemon will boost your immune system, too. Mix one to two tablespoons of lemon juice into your glass of water, and drink it slowly. If you are eating solid foods, drink this mixture about 30 minutes before you eat.
- Zinc supplements can reduce the severity of your symptoms, as well as shorten the length of your illness.
Your digestive system naturally contains probiotics which help you digest foods and stay healthy.
When you have gastroenteritis, your probiotic levels may become depleted, or get wiped out by your illness.
Probiotics can help resolve diarrhea faster by replenishing your gut microflora (15).
Foods rich in probiotics include yogurt with active cultures, kefir, kimchi, kombucha, sauerkraut, tempeh, and miso.
Other Helpful Treatments
Using a heating pad on your abdominal area can help relieve abdominal cramping.
Acupressure can be helpful in targeting pressure points related to nausea and vomiting.
Applying finger pressure to the inner wrist, known as the P-6 pressure point, is useful in alleviating these symptoms.
Remember to Focus on Hydration
The two most important things you can do for your body while it recovers from a stomach virus are rest and hydration.
If you lose too many fluids from vomiting or diarrhea, you may experience severe dehydration, which can lead to more significant problems.
Those in vulnerable populations like the elderly, those with immune-system problems, and young children are particularly susceptible to severe dehydration.
If you suspect severe dehydration in yourself or someone you care about, seek medical help immediately.
Intravenous fluids can be given to help restore proper fluid levels (16).
Symptoms of dehydration you should be looking for include:
- A dry or sticky mouth;
- Sunken eyes;
- Lack of skin elasticity;
- Inability to urinate, or reduced urine output;
- Inability to produce tears.
You can make your own oral hydration fluid at home to help keep sick family members properly hydrated during an illness.
You will need to rehydrate during your illness to replace all the fluids lost to diarrhea and vomiting, and also after your illness is over to replace the electrolytes your body needs to stay healthy.
To make your own oral hydration solution, combine one liter of filtered or distilled water with six tablespoons of sugar and one-half teaspoon of salt.
Stir all ingredients to combine and dissolve completely.
Drink three to five cups of this solution per day during your illness, and for at least five days after your symptoms resolve.
When Should I See a Doctor?
While a typical stomach virus is usually easy to diagnose by yourself, the symptoms of a stomach virus can be similar to those of other, more serious illnesses.
If you have any of the following symptoms, you should seek medical attention immediately.
- Severe dehydration;
- Blood in vomit or stool;
- For children and adults, a fever greater than 102.2 degrees Fahrenheit;
- For infants, a fever greater than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit;
- Vomiting for longer than 48 hours;
- Pain in the lower part of the abdomen, or a swollen belly.
If you cannot keep liquids down at all, seek medical attention immediately to avoid dehydration.
While normal stomach viruses can run their course quickly and with little long-term impact, severe dehydration should be treated, and can even cause death if left untreated.
If you are in a vulnerable population, such as the elderly or the very young, your chances of developing severe dehydration are much higher than those of the general population, so watch out for symptoms of severe fluid loss.
Proper hand washing and hygiene are crucial for preventing a stomach virus from taking hold, or from spreading it once it has been contracted.
If you are around or caring for someone with a stomach virus, be extra vigilant about washing your hands, avoiding contaminated surfaces, and not touching your own mouth, eyes, or nose.
Having a stomach virus is inconvenient, and is likely to cause you to feel bad for a few days, but in general, this illness will pass quickly, if you rest and stay hydrated.
Staying hydrated is extremely important, as the vomiting and diarrhea associated with a stomach virus can cause you to lose lots of water from your system.
Drink water, electrolyte drinks, broth, tea, and other clear liquids, and avoid foods that are likely to cause trouble to your sensitive system.
Stomach viruses are common and usually do not last long, but they can be extremely contagious.
To avoid a stomach virus, you must wash your hands regularly, and avoid contaminated foods or water.
If one person in a closed environment like a cruise ship or nursing home contracts a stomach virus, there is a high probability that many others will become sick.
Other natural remedies that can be helpful to you while you are recovering from a stomach virus include the use of herbal teas like ginger, peppermint, or chamomile, apple cider vinegar, lemon juice, fennel, cinnamon, turmeric, and zinc.
Getting plenty of rest, staying cool with compresses, and using acupressure can help alleviate many of the uncomfortable symptoms associated with a stomach virus.
The information on this website has not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration or any other medical body. We do not aim to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any illness or disease. Information is shared for educational purposes only. You must consult your doctor before acting on any content on this website, especially if you are pregnant, nursing, taking medication, or have a medical condition.
HOW WOULD YOU RATE THIS ARTICLE?