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How to Treat a Stomach Bug

Often called the stomach bug or the stomach flu, viral gastroenteritis is an illness that is quite common throughout the year, but especially throughout the winter months. Symptoms include nausea, watery diarrhea, vomiting, sometimes a fever and malaise, or a general feeling of discomfort.  Most symptoms last for about 24 to 48 hours, but sometimes they may last for up to 72 hours.

Viral gastroenteritis is very contagious.  If someone in your family has it, it is likely others will get it, especially those who are caring for a sick person or cleaning up after them.  The illness is spread through contact with vomit or stool, contaminated food or water, direct contact with an infected person, and contact with surfaces touched by an infected person, such as doorknobs, faucet handles or toilet flush handles.

A person may be contagious before showing symptoms of the virus, though onset of symptoms is very quick, within one to two days. Patients may continue to be contagious for two to three weeks, but the virus is more likely to be spread during the active phase of vomiting or diarrhea.

Prevention & Cleaning

Viral gastroenteritis is often resistant to hand sanitizers. The best method of prevention is washing your hands frequently and thoroughly with warm water and soap. Cleaners with bleach are best for killing these particular viruses, and gloves may be worn to make clean-up easier and to decrease risk of exposure to the virus.


The best method of treatment is to drink, drink, drink.  Lots of fluids are key, especially water, but also some sports drinks or broths can be tolerated. The sugar in juice or soda could make your stomach feel worse and cause more diarrhea, so if drinking these, water them down significantly.

Additionally, get lots of rest to help restore your energy level, and slowly introduce foods back into your diet. Start with bland foods such as toast, applesauce or chicken noodle soup. Eliminate milk and dairy from your diet initially, and slowly introduce it back after several days. Also try to avoid food heavy in fat until you are feeling better, as these can cause more difficulty with digestion.

Risk of Dehydration

Especially in children, gastroenteritis can cause dehydration.  This is why it is so important to keep drinking. Signs of dehydration include:

  • No tears when crying
  • Decreased urination
  • A dry tongue
  • Listlessness

If your child is sick and refuses to drink, you can feed him or her very small amounts of water or Pedialyte via a syringe every 10 minutes over the course of an hour or two until he or she feels good enough to drink more. Concern about dehydration is definitely a reason to call your doctor’s office for advice and next steps. Depending on the severity of illness, your child may need to go to the emergency room for an IV of fluids.

Other Reasons to Call the Doctor

If symptoms last for more than 72 hours and are getting worse or not improving, if abdominal pain is severe, if you are unable to tolerate fluids by mouth, or if you are otherwise concerned about your symptoms, call your doctor’s office for further advice.

About Laura Ekka, MD

Dr. Laura Ekka is a physician with WakeMed Physician Practices – Garner Primary Care. Learn more about the primary care and urgent care services offered by WakeMed Physician Practices.