While people often refer to symptoms like nausea, cramping, vomiting and diarrhea as the stomach flu or a stomach bug, the official term is gastroenteritis. Gastroenteritis is inflammation of the stomach and intestines, often caused by different viruses. When the stomach flu strikes, food might be the last thing on your mind. But choosing the right foods and fluids can settle a queasy tummy and help speed your recovery.
Expert and Abbott research scientist Jennifer Williams, MPH, answers your questions about what to eat when you have the stomach flu.
Q: Why is nutrition so important when you have the stomach flu?
JW: Between nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, the stomach flu can cause you to lose lots of nutrients and fluids quickly. This can lead to dehydration, making you feel lethargic, or giving you a headache and making you feel even worse. By rehydrating with the right fluids and choosing the best foods for stomach flu recovery, you can replenish those losses and recover faster.
Infographic: How to identify signs of dehydration
Q: Who is most susceptible to dehydration?
JW: Adult bodies are 60 to 65 percent water, so dehydration is an issue for anyone with the stomach flu. But it's an even bigger concern for babies and small children because their bodies contain an even greater percentage of water than adults — about 70 to 75 percent — and they can't always tell you if they're feeling thirsty or dehydrated. Older adults are also more prone to dehydration since they may be taking medicines that are dehydrating, might forget to drink enough or they might limit their fluid intake to cut down on trips to the bathroom.
Q: What is the best strategy to combat flu-related dehydration?
JW: Start with small sips of simple fluids like water, unsweetened hot or iced tea, coconut water or an oral rehydration solution like Pedialyte®. When choosing an oral rehydration solution, look for one that contains sodium, potassium, and chloride, which are the main electrolytes lost through vomiting and diarrhea. Because these electrolytes help the brain send signals to muscles and nerves, replacing them along with lost fluids can help you feel better faster. Pedialyte has an optimal balance of sugar and electrolytes to combat dehydration during the stomach flu.
Q: For people who are wondering what to eat when they have the stomach flu, what are the best foods for recovery?
JW: This can be hard, because when you're feeling sick, sometimes the last thing you want to think about is eating. But eating can help replenish your energy and what you've lost. The best foods for stomach flu recovery are the ones that can provide your body with what it's missing and are easy to digest during recovery.
Q: Are there any foods and drinks to avoid with the stomach flu?
JW: Too much sugar pulls excess water into the gut, which can make diarrhea worse, so avoid sugary foods and drinks like cookies, soda, juice and sports drinks. Foods that are high in fat or fiber can be difficult to digest, and spicy foods can be very irritating to your digestive system, so I'd steer clear of those until you're back on your feet. Because the body loses important calories and nutrients via diarrhea and vomiting, eating healthy foods and rehydrating is key to recovery from the stomach flu.
If you are experiencing symptoms of the stomach flu or have concerns about the flu and dehydration always consult your healthcare provider.*
*Note: This column is for general educational and informational purposes only. The information and the opinions of the author expressed do not constitute medical advice. Speak to a medical professional if you need personal health advice.
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What You Can Do Now to Help Prevent the Flu Later
Last flu season in the U.S., there were as many as 49 million estimated cases of influenza, causing around 940,000 hospitalizations and nearly 80,000 deaths. Those numbers might sound daunting, but there are steps you can take to help prevent the flu. To get ready for flu season, we spoke with two Abbott experts to answer the most frequently asked questions. Jennifer Williams, MPH, a nutrition research scientist specializing in hydration and Dr. Norman Moore, Ph.D., director of scientific affairs and infectious disease, discuss how to prevent stomach flu and influenza (flu), and how to recognize and treat it in the instances when you can't.