What You Need to Know About Stomach Flu
The main difference between a “stomach flu” and “food poisoning” is duration. Both usually have vomiting and diarrhea, fever and chills to varying degrees, and abdominal cramps, but food poisoning should not last more than 24 hours, while a stomach flu may last up to 3-4 days. Also, food poisoning usually has a more abrupt onset with all of the above symptoms occurring almost simultaneously, within 1/2 hour to 24 hours after ingesting tainted food, while the symptoms of viral gastroenteritis may occur more gradually with vomiting or diarrhea occurring before the other begins.
The cause of food poisoning is usually an exotoxin (liquid) produced by staphylococcus bacteria very frequently, or an endotoxin (on the bacteria itself) such as from shigella, salmonella, campylobacter, or E. Coli. Ingesting food that has not been cooked thoroughly, or reheated, or improperly stored, or made from fresh vegetables/fruits that weren’t washed before preparation, is the main culprit. Use of antibiotics for treating some of these bacteria is controversial, since it is felt that they can cause the germs to become invasive into the walls of the intestines, and thus prolong illness.
Viral gastroenteritis, or “stomach flu”, occurs from the “fecal/oral” route, i.e. someone who has the virus does not properly wash their hands after using the toilet, and a healthy person touches a surface that the infected person touched, or their soiled clothing, or shakes hands with him/her, and then touches their own face or mouth. It has no cure.
Treatment of both is similar, except for the decision whether or not to use antibiotics. Only clear liquids in sips (no more than 1 oz every 3-5 minutes—that’s only 2 tablespoons!!) to start if vomiting/ nauseous. This lets liquids slide by the stomach. If one is thirsty and ingests a large quantity of liquid rapidly, the distention of an already irritated stomach causes reflex regurgitation. Thus, small amounts, frequently is indicated. However, if one also has diarrhea, then constantly ingesting liquids slides by the stomach, but keeps stimulating the bowels and thus propagates the diarrhea. So, if one has both vomiting and diarrhea: take clear liquids in small amounts frequently until thirst is slacked, but then wait 1-2 hours before repeating.
Also, it is important to not drink only water. One loses sodium, potassium, and other chemicals in the emesis and diarrhea that are important to maintain a normal heart rhythm. Drinking only water will further dilute them in the bloodstream, with potential life-threatening consequences. While Gatorade, Powerade, and other “sport” drinks have electrolytes, they are made to replace sweat, not emesis or diarrhea. Coconut Water, on the other hand, has almost the same concentration of electrolytes as human serum, although slightly more potassium (which is good when having both vomiting and diarrhea) and glucose. “Pedialyte” is good for children, but pretty much intolerable to take for anyone older. (Holding one’s nose while drinking/eating unpleasant substances greatly improves the process, since we really “taste” with our sense of smell – the tongue has limited sensations.)
The World Health Organization/UNICEF and others have looked at ORT (Oral Replacement Therapy) because of the unavailability of enough i.v. fluids in Third World countries when Cholera or Rotavirus epidemics occur to replace the massive fluid losses of these diseases. There are many different products of electrolyte powders that can be added to 1 qt of clean water. In general they contain: 1 tsp of salt, 1/2 tsp. of baking soda, and 2-4 tblsp of sugar or honey at a minimum. One can make the same if in a pinch. It is also now recommended to restart regular feedings in children after 6-8 hours if possible. Bananas, applesauce (apple juice can cause diarrhea), rice, and toast are binding. Keep away from caffeine drinks that will stimulate the bowels.
We use injectable, “ODT”s (oral dissolving tablets), or suppository medications to stop the vomiting, and “OTC” (over the counter) Kaopectate or Imodium AD to stop diarrhea in viral gastroenteritis, along with i.v. fluid replacement if needed. I prefer Acetaminophen to control fever and aches, since NSAIDs like Ibuprofen (Advil, etc.) or Naprosyn ( Aleve, etc.) are irritating on the stomach. Also, taking a non-milk-product-containing ProBiotic (at least 9 billion cfus/dose) 3x/day, will replace the normal good bacteria in your intestines that are lost from either of these diseases causing increased diarrhea. ProBiotics have no side effects, and are tasteless. If you cannot control symptoms by yourself, please call us before becoming dangerously dehydrated, or go to the nearest E.R.!!
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STEVEN J. LIPSKY MD, FACEP