What is a "stomach bug"?

A “stomach bug” or “stomach flu” is gastroenteritis. It is an illness that affects the stomach and gastrointestinal tract of an individual. It is quite common, with more than three million cases each year in the United States. 

What are the signs and symptoms of a stomach bug?

The symptoms of a stomach bug may include:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • abdominal pain or cramping
  • fever
  • mild abdominal tenderness may be noted during a physical exam

What causes gastroenteritis?

The most common cause of gastroenteritis is a virus (norovirus, adenovirus, rotavirus); however, bacteria is responsible for cases of food poisoning. It is most often contracted by being in close contact with someone who is infected or by eating food or drinking water that is contaminated.

It may be difficult to tell the difference between a viral or bacterial case of gastroenteritis. Most often, bloody diarrhea or diarrhea with mucous is seen with bacterial infections. If bacterial gastroenteritis is suspected, your doctor may order a stool sample. 

How is a stomach bug treated?

Gastroenteritis usually resolves by itself and is treated with supportive measures and keeping yourself hydrated. This can be managed with sports drinks, Pedialyte, broth from soup, or popsicles.

No specific diet is recommended, but small meals and bland foods are often better tolerated. Your healthcare provider may also recommend a prescription medication that can relieve the nausea, vomiting and/or diarrhea. 

Should you seek care for gastroenteritis?

You should see your healthcare provider for medical attention if:

  • symptoms persist longer than a week
  • you are pregnant or immunocompromised 
  • you experience signs of dehydration or are unable to hold down any liquids for an extended period 

What are the signs of dehydration?

Dehydration is a dangerous condition that requires immediate medical attention. Seek help if you experience any of the following signs of dehydration:

  • dry mouth
  • increased thirst
  • altered mental status (confusion)
  • headache
  • fast heart rate/palpitations
  • low blood pressure
  • feeling like you are going to pass out
  • weakness
  • decreased urine output or urine that is dark in color and has an odor 

How long does gastroenteritis last?

Symptoms of a stomach bug come on quickly and typically last for 24 to 48 hours. Some cases may last as long as a week. 

Can a stomach bug be prevented?

To prevent a stomach bug, practice good hand hygiene, avoid close contact with those who are sick and be sure to disinfect surfaces in your home and office.

For more tips to keep you and your family healthy, check out our Lifespan Living health and wellness blog. 

Jennifer Allen, MSN, FNP-BC

Jennifer Allen, MSN, FNP-BC

Jennifer Allen, MSN, FNP-BC, is a nurse practitioner with Warwick Primary Care, a Coastal Medical practice.