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Think You Have the ‘Stomach Flu’?

You started your day like any other. You got up, got dressed, went to work and felt normal until it hit you in the middle of your team meeting: that telltale rumble and the mad dash to the bathroom. You’ve been sidelined by diarrhea and vomiting.

Your co-workers say you have the “stomach flu,” but that miserable combination of nausea, vomiting and diarrhea is not the flu. It’s gastroenteritis, an infection in your bowels that causes your stomach and intestines to become irritated or inflamed and can be caused by a virus or food poisoning.

How to Know It’s Gastroenteritis

Symptoms include three or more loose stools per day, stomach pain and nausea. Some people experience vomiting, and about half will have a fever. That’s a much different slate of symptoms from influenza, which often involves congestion, runny nose, cough, muscle aches, chills and fever.

Gastroenteritis can be viral or bacterial. “It is hard to tell which one you have because the symptoms are similar for both,” says Amy Shipley, MD, a family medicine doctor with UNC Physicians Network. “Unless you do stool studies and cultures, you can’t differentiate bacteria from a virus in most situations.”

Most people will have symptoms for one to three days, but symptoms can last up to two weeks. Salmonella, an infection caused by bacteria called salmonellosis, can last a week, and the rotavirus, a highly contagious viral infection, can last even longer.

When to See a Doctor

Dr. Shipley recommends patients see a doctor if symptoms persist for more than one week, or if they are elderly or pregnant, losing weight, or have severe abdominal pain, blood in their stool or other chronic conditions such as diabetes or heart disease.

Treatment for viral and bacterial gastroenteritis is the same. Dr. Shipley recommends patients get plenty of rest, eat what they can and drink fluids to avoid dehydration.

“Eat what you can eat. You don’t necessarily have to eat a bland diet, because if all you can keep down is a milkshake, then drink a milkshake,” Dr. Shipley says. “Usually, though, most people can only tolerate a bland diet of foods like crackers.”

Dr. Shipley also recommends drinking a rehydration solution such as Pedialyte for kids and Hydralyte for adults. She says Gatorade is fine but tends to have a lot of sugar, which can make diarrhea worse.

“I tell my patients with diabetes, ‘If that’s all you can keep down, I’m OK with you drinking Gatorade for three days,’” Dr. Shipley says. “Drinking Gatorade is better than getting dehydrated because you can’t keep anything down.”

She recommends drinking broth because it is calorie-dense. She also says to avoid returning to work or school too early.

“You have to stay home and rest. Your body is trying to heal,” Dr. Shipley says. “You also don’t want to go back to work too soon because then you can spread it to everybody else.”

Preventing Gastroenteritis

To help prevent the stomach bug, wash your hands often, especially when you’re out in public. Dr. Shipley recommends wiping off grocery carts and washing surfaces such as countertops and computer keyboards at home if a family member gets sick. Also, clean your bathrooms with bleach.

“There are a few viruses, such as the norovirus, that need bleach,” she says. “Also watch the news and pay attention to what’s going on in your community, because if there’s an outbreak of the norovirus, don’t go to places that are self-serve because people are using those utensils and laying them right back down on the food, and that’s just asking to get sick.”


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