At first, you think hopefully that the rumbling in your belly is just due to mild indigestion or gas. But then you break out in a cold sweat, the noises in your stomach get louder, and you’re in a race to get to the bathroom.
Acute gastrointestinal events like this happen to the average person about once a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. During these events, most people tend to blame the last thing they ate, but that’s actually rarely the culprit.
So what does have us scrambling for the Pepto Bismol? Turns out there are several ways you can get a stomach bug.
Viral and Bacterial Infections
Gastroenteritis, commonly referred to as stomach flu, is usually caused by a viral infection. Symptoms can include severe nausea, cramping, diarrhea, and dehydration.
Children are most susceptible to strains of stomach flu like norovirus and rotavirus, because these types of gastroenteritis are extremely contagious. Viral stomach flu spreads through close contact with other infected individuals (who can remain contagious for up to three weeks after recovery).
Food poisoning, or bacterial gastroenteritis, occurs when bacteria and parasites come in contact with food items. The most common causes of food poisoning are E. coli, Salmonella, and Staphylococcus.
Food poisoning generally isn’t contagious from person to person, but anyone who ate the food in question is at risk for developing symptoms such as acute abdominal cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea.
The last food you ate is not likely to have caused your food poisoning. It usually takes between 10 and 14 hours to fully digest a meal, so the most likely offender is actually the food you ate one to two days prior to feeling ill.
Natural Stomach Bug Remedies
If you suspect you have a stomach bug due to viral or bacterial infection, there are some natural remedies you can try to ease symptoms.
Alternate hot and cold.
If you’re suffering from abdominal cramping, try a heating pad or even a warm homemade rice bag to alleviate pain and allow muscles to relax.
When you break out in a cold, clammy sweat, place a cool, wet cloth on your forehead. The science behind this is a bit complicated, but essentially, as the water evaporates, it creates a cooling effect against your skin, which results in comfort for you.
Be a BRAT.
Ok, don’t really be a brat. But you may want to try the BRAT diet if you have a stomach bug.
Bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast are all great foods to try when you’re suffering from gastrointestinal distress. These foods are bland, high in potassium, and aid in digestive recovery.
Skip cold drinks.
A frosty beverage sounds refreshing when you’re suffering from a stomach bug, but it’s actually better to drink room-temperature drinks that are high in electrolytes to replenish nutrients that have been lost through nausea and diarrhea.
There’s a reason people head straight for the ginger ale at the first sign of a stomach bug. Ginger is a superfood that contains antioxidants and has anti-inflammatory properties that can soothe an inflamed gut.
Flat ginger ale can help alleviate tummy trouble, but ginger tea and crystallized ginger root are also excellent remedies.
Avoid certain irritants.
A hot cup of coffee might be the furthest thing from your mind when you’re suffering from a stomach bug. But if you’re feeling better, you might be tempted to reach for the caffeine.
It’s best to hold off on digestive stimulants such as coffee, chocolate, and fatty, greasy foods for a few days until your symptoms completely resolve. Otherwise you might find yourself facing a second round of gastrointestinal distress.
Non-Contagious Causes of Stomach Upset
Not all stomach bugs are caused by an infection.
Have you unfairly blamed yesterday's Chinese takeout for your stomachache? A food allergy or reaction to medication may be the cause instead.
Allergies tend to cause itchy eyes, a sore throat, and a runny nose. If you’re allergic to certain foods, however, your allergy symptoms might appear similar to a stomach bug.
Almost any food is capable of causing an allergic reaction, but the most common offenders are peanuts, shellfish, milk, soy, and wheat.
If you think your stomach bug is caused by food allergies, try eliminating that particular food from your diet for a few days. If you notice your symptoms clearing up, then you may be allergic to that particular food.
Fortunately, food allergies aren’t contagious. Your doctor may recommend allergy testing to determine exactly which foods trigger symptoms. Treatment can include eliminating certain foods, prescription antihistamines, or immunotherapy for severe food allergies.
Medicine is supposed to make you feel better, right?
In some cases, prescribed medicines—especially antibiotics, anti-inflammatory drugs, and angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors—can cause gastrointestinal distress that may make you think you’ve got a stomach bug.
Antibiotics in particular can cause severe upset stomach and diarrhea because they wreak havoc on bacteria in the large intestine.
It’s important to continue taking antibiotics and other prescribed medications per your doctor’s instructions. If you’re suffering from a medication-induced stomach bug, make like Jamie Lee Curtis and try a probiotic. Probiotics contain good bacteria that aid digestion and can help restore the natural bacteria balance to your gut.
When to Call the Doctor
A stomach bug should begin to resolve on its own within two to five days. If you do not start to feel better or if your symptoms get worse, you should call your doctor.
Other signs you should call your doctor include:
–Weakness, dizziness, or trouble urinating (which can be signs of dehydration)
–A persistent high fever lasting more than two days in children and more than five days in adults
–Blood in stool
–Vomiting that lasts more than two days
Stomach Bug Prevention
Unfortunately, the flu shot will not protect against viral and bacterial gastroenteritis. Although these ailments are commonly called the stomach flu, they’re totally unrelated to influenza, which is a respiratory virus.
The best way to steer clear of tummy trouble is to always wash your hands or use hand sanitizer before preparing or eating a meal.
Think about all the things you touched during the day and how many people were there before you. That’s a lot of germs. Washing your hands is the best way to prevent viral and bacterial infections from spreading.
If anyone in your family has already contracted a stomach bug, it’s not too late to stop the virus from spreading. Disinfect your home from top to bottom. This includes doorknobs, kitchen counters, bathrooms, and linens that the sick person in question has used.
It might sound harsh, but if you can quarantine the infected person temporarily as you disinfect, you just might avoid contracting the stomach bug yourself.
If you’ve already contracted the stomach bug, you can help spare others by staying home as long as possible. Even though you might start to feel better within two to three days, you’re actually contagious for up to three weeks.
You may not be able to avoid going back to work for three weeks, but you can disinfect your work space, wash your hands often, and avoid physical contact with coworkers and friends until you’re no longer contagious.
Twenty million people will get the stomach bug this year. Now that you’ve got all the facts, fingers crossed that you won’t be one of them!