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It’s never fun to get sick, but having a stomach virus is truly one of the worst experiences. Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and fever all band together to bring you a few days of bathroom-ridden hell.
Thankfully, there are a few ways you can fight the symptoms of the stomach flu without any over-the-counter medication. They may not make the virus go away, but you can feel better and heal a lot faster with a few of these expert tips.
That means that your flu shot definitely won’t prevent the stomach flu and that regular influenza shouldn’t be sending you on emergency trips to the bathroom.
Symptoms of stomach flu
Viral gastroenteritis causes vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and misery and usually only lasts 1 to 3 days (but can feel muuuuch longer).
The most common form of viral gastroenteritis in the US is the norovirus. According to the CDC, there are 19 to 21 million acute cases of norovirus causing gastroenteritis every year. Though you can get the illness in any season, it tends strike November – April.
Stomach bugs spread like wildfire. Norovirus can be found in your poo days before you even feel sick, according to the CDC.
So, if you don’t wash your hands well after going to the bathroom and then make dinner for your family, you’ve just spread norovirus throughout the house! (Also: eww).
The virus is usually spread through physical contact or food and it spreads easily. So, the best way to avoid gastroenteritis is by thoroughly washing your hands.
We’re not talking a “run your hands under the water till the count of three” kind of wash. You need to use soap and warm water after every trip to the bathroom, before meals, and after dealing with public places (looking at you, MTA).
Though hand sanitizer is good to use in a pinch, the CDC warns that hand sanitizer will not replace washing with soap and water.
So, break out the sanitizer after shaking hands with the boss that just sneezed all over himself, then properly wash your hands in the bathroom as soon as you get a chance.
Unfortunately, nothing will actually kill a stomach virus. Even if you go to the doctor, there’s no vaccine to prevent the virus or pill to make it go away. You just have to let it run its course.
It’s important to note that if you can’t keep anything down for over 24 hours or have a fever of over 104 degrees, then you do need to go to the doctor right away.
Otherwise, if your symptoms aren’t that severe (as unpleasant as they may be), here are some remedies to ease your pain and make recovery a little easier.
“Ginger really does help soothe the stomach!” says Functional Medicine practitioner Maggie Berghoff.
A 2015 review found that ginger helped reduce nausea and vomiting in nine clinical studies. Though more evidence is needed, there’s growing proof that ginger is far more than an old wives’ tale.
Still, a can of ginger ale may not be your best option. A ginger soda has very little actual ginger and a whole lot of sugar. “I recommend 100 percent pure ginger chews or ginger tea during the day when you’re feeling nauseous,” says Berghoff.
You don’t even have to buy a fancy tea. Just cut off about a half inch of ginger, put it in some hot water, and voila — you’ve got stomach soothing tea!
Now, if ginger ale is the only thing that makes you feel human when you have the stomach flu, go for it. But a stronger dose of the root is likely to be more helpful.
“A Chinese herb that works wonders for an upset stomach is Kudzu,” says Dr. Elizabeth Trattner, Integrative Medicine specialist. Kudzu is a fast-growing vine that can help ease nausea and potentially increase circulation.
She recommends taking kudzu with unsweetened apple juice, as apple pectin also helps coat the stomach. It can be taken as a tea or as an extract in capsule form. Clinical herbalist Thomas Easley recommends 1,000 – 3,000 milligrams up to three times per day.
Hydration, hydration, hydration
“One thing commonly overlooked in fighting off stomach viruses is the importance of proper hydration,” says Wayne Anthony, founder of WaterFilterData.org.
“During a stomach virus, you lose a lot of fluids due to vomiting and diarrhea. But those aren’t the only causes of dehydration. Since you aren’t hungry (and can’t keep food down) not eating also adds to the dehydration.” Then, the dehydration itself will make you feel even worse, so it’s incredibly important to keep your fluid intake up while you’re sick.
“Don’t just guzzle water down, as this will make it more difficult to keep it down. Instead, try slow slips to ease the stomach,” says Anthony. Even if you’re incredibly thirsty, if you’re still throwing up a lot, you need to drink slow.
Have a sip every few minutes so you don’t trigger another round of vomiting. You can also drink sports drinks like Gatorade to make sure you’re getting salt and the other electrolytes you need.
If you really can’t keep anything down, Anthony recommends sucking on ice chips. The cold will probably feel nice (especially if you’re feverish) and the slow stream of water usually won’t trigger your gag reflex.
Even after the worst of the illness has past, keep drinking water! The best thing for a stomach bug is staying hydrated and if you stop drinking the second you stop vomiting, you’ll still feel dehydrated and miserable for days.
Keep a bottle or glass of water next to you at all times and drink throughout the day. Sure, you might still end up in the bathroom a lot (though just going pee will be quite a relief once the vomiting/diarrhea train has stopped), but you’ll recover much faster.
Once the major diarrhea and vomiting has stopped, there are a few things you can do to make your transition back into healthy life a little easier.
The BRAT diet
No, this doesn’t involve any whining or complaining about your food. BRAT stands for bananas, rice, apples, and toast. These are all easy to digest and will help you transition back to eating normally.
That doesn’t mean you have to eat only BRAT foods, they’re just examples of things that likely won’t upset your stomach. And they’ll help you produce more regular stools if you’re still experiencing diarrhea.
The most important part of the BRAT diet is how you reintroduce these foods. Don’t just chow down on banana sandwiches the second you stop throwing up.
First, you have to let your stomach rest, so the Oregon Clinic recommends eating nothing in the first 6 hours after vomiting. After that, add in clearish liquids like broth, apple juice, or tea.
After a day without vomiting, give those BRAT foods a try. Even if you’re hungry, be mindful of your portions. Your system is still recovering and you don’t want to make yourself sick by eating too much.
Once you’ve had a day or 2 of BRAT foods and your nausea has mostly subsided, you can go back to a normal diet. Still, it’s best to avoid fried foods, dairy products, and alcohol for a few more days, just to give your stomach a chance to fully recover.
The whole gastro system gets thrown for a loop during a stomach virus and your intestinal microbiome might be a little out of whack.
“I recommend a multi-strain of probiotics that has at least eight different types of Lactobacillus and Bifidum,” says Dr. Trattner. “There should be at least 25 billion strains and live (in the cold section) are the best.”
The probiotics won’t make you feel any different right away, but they will help your body get back to normal a little faster.
Stomach flu is not actually the flu. It’s a virus and though you can’t force the bug out of your system, these home remedies should make dealing with a stomach virus a little easier.
- Ginger: Make a DIY tea by cutting off a half-inch piece of fresh ginger root and putting it in some hot water.
- Kudzu: It’s available in supplement form.
- Hydration: Sip water, don’t chug!
The virus typically lasts 1 to 3 days. Following a gentle BRAT Diet (bananas, rice, applesauce, toast) and taking probiotics may ease your system back to normal.
Amber Petty is an L.A.-based writer. Follow her on Instagram @ambernpetty.