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7 Tips For Managing Stomach Flu Symptoms 

The stomach flu affects 20 million people every year in the U.S. Here's how to protect your family.

Mom taking the temperature of a young child
Jan 15 2018

Every flu season you probably stock up on tissues and cough medicine, but how prepared are you for the stomach flu? Even though the respiratory flu and the stomach flu share the same season, they are very different illnesses. "Stomach flu symptoms really come down to digestive issues such as cramps, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea," says Jennifer Williams, M.P.H., a research scientist at Abbott. While the stomach flu can strike at any time of year, 80 percent of cases will hit from November through April in the U.S. And, just like the respiratory flu, it's especially contagious.

This 7-step plan can help manage stomach flu symptoms and keep your family safe.

1. Get to Know the Warning Signs

The stomach flu isn't just unpleasant, it's one of the leading dehydration causes in children. How so? "Diarrhea and vomiting can cause a significant and immediate loss of fluids and electrolytes," says Williams. While dehydration can be dangerous for anyone, it's especially problematic for infants and young children because their smaller bodies containing a higher proportion of water. In any given year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report dehydration from the stomach flu will send 1.5 million children to the doctor's office and another 200,000 to the hospital.

2. Nip Dehydration Early

When it comes to preventing dehydration, certain liquids can help replenish lost water and electrolytes far more effectively than others. When you were growing up, your mom may have offered you soda, apple juice or a sports drink, but health experts say not so fast. These sugary drinks lack sufficient electrolytes necessary for full rehydration. Plus, their sugar can actually make diarrhea worse instead of better, especially in children. Williams recommends reaching for an oral rehydration solution such as Pedialyte® that provides electrolytes, including sodium and potassium, and a small amount of glucose to help the body rehydrate. If your child refuses to drink, a frozen Pedialyte® Freezer Pop is a kid-friendly way to give them vital fluids and electrolytes.

3. Think Small

It's easy to assume that gulping down loads of fluids is the best way to rehydrate. However, when you're feeling queasy, it can be hard to keep large amounts of liquids down. Even though water sounds like a good idea, it's not absorbed all that efficiently when dehydrated, especially by children's small bodies. Instead, try small sips of an oral rehydration solution every fifteen minutes. Once that is well tolerated, slowly increase the amount for a total of 32 to 64 ounces over the next 24 hours. The only exception to this guideline is for infants under age 1, in which case you'll want to follow your pediatrician's advice.

4. Starve a Cold, Feed a Stomach Virus?

Surprising as it may sound, it's actually okay for someone with the stomach flu to eat as long as they aren't vomiting. In fact, food can supply additional fluids and electrolytes to speed rehydration. Test the waters by starting with clear, broth-based soups. If those go down easily, you can offer small servings of bland foods such as white rice, crackers and toast. As with beverages, you'll want to steer clear of anything sugary such as candy, cookies or ice cream and any high-fat foods.

5. Know When to Call the Doctor

A virus causes the stomach flu, so there's no medication that can cure it. However, there are complications that may require medical attention, especially in young children, so be sure to call your doctor in the case of stomach flu symptoms such as:

  • Diarrhea lasting for more than 24 hours
  • Signs of dehydration
  • A high fever
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Bloody stools or vomit
     

6. Stock up for Emergencies

When late night tummy troubles hit, the last thing you want to do is run to the store. Stocking your pantry and medicine cabinet with a few bottles or powder packs of an oral rehydration solution such as Pedialyte®, a thermometer, a few cans of broth-based soups, and a fever reducer can make life a whole lot easier next time the stomach bug makes an appearance in your house.

7. Think Prevention

It's impossible to avoid the stomach flu completely, but there are steps that you and your family can take to prevent it. Since the stomach flu is frequently spread by hand-to-hand contact or by touching contaminated surfaces, regular hand washing with plenty of warm soapy water is key.

Can't get to a sink? Stashing a bottle of hand sanitizer in your bag or car can be helpful in a pinch. Also, keep in mind that this virus is often spread via contaminated food. Be sure to wash all fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating or preparing them. And if you're caring for someone with the stomach flu, you'll want to protect other family members from becoming ill by thoroughly laundering any soiled clothing, sheets or towels and disinfecting any contaminated surfaces such as doorknobs, phones and toys.