Surviving the stomach bug

December 18, 2015

It’s three a.m. and you’re in the middle of blissful sleep. Suddenly, you are awakened by your child’s cry. Rushing in, you find your child sobbing and hovering over the toilet. The dreaded stomach bug has struck and your household is now on the defense.

The “stomach bug” usually refers to viral gastroenteritis, or viral infection of the stomach and intestines.  A variety of viruses can be involved.  These viruses are known to run rampant in schools as winter approaches. Kids are especially vulnerable to these highly contagious bugs due to their lack of virus-specific antibodies and underdeveloped hygiene habits. While kids are more likely to catch the illness, adults need to be cautious too—especially those who care for children and run daycares —because even though an adult may have milder symptoms, they could still spread virus.

Stomach bug or food poisoning?

Your stomach is tossing and turning. Your symptoms have persisted longer than normal for a bout of food poisoning, but you’re still unsure of the cause. Could it be something worse?

“What is commonly termed “food poisoning” is usually due to consuming a bacterial toxin that contaminates food.  It’s difficult to tell the difference between a viral gastroenteritis and food poisoning early in the course of the illness,” said Cristie Columbus, MD, vice dean of the Texas A&M College of Medicine in Dallas. “The three key signs to watch for are how long the illness takes to become symptomatic, how long it lasts and if a fever is present.”

While the stomach bug and food poisoning symptoms are very similar, food poisoning will generally present with symptoms within a few hours after eating, whereas, a stomach virus has a longer incubation period—anywhere from 18 to 72 hours depending on the virus. If the sickness lasts longer than a day or two it is likely the stomach bug. Stomach bug victims are also more likely to have a fever than those with food poisoning.

When the stomach bug attacks 

Those with at higher risk for developing complications from a stomach virus are infants under six months old, adults 65 and over, pregnant women and people who suffer from immune disorders or are immune-compromised. Anyone fitting into one of these categories should touch base with their physician as soon as symptoms develop.

Unlike a bacterial infection, a common stomach bug is viral—similar to the cold—and cannot be treated with medications. However, you may still want to see your primary care physician even if the only treatment option is to wait the bug out and nurse your symptoms.

Cleanliness is key when attempting to prevent the spread of a stomach virus.

“Trying to prevent the spread of a viral infection once one member of the family catches it is hard to do, but diligently cleaning can help,” Columbus said. She recommends keeping plenty of soap on hand for the use of proper handwashing practices, washing the items the infected person has touched—including bed sheets and toys, using buckets with spouts for easy clean-up and using a bleach-based cleaner which will kill most viruses for disinfecting the bathroom.

Parents caring for children with the bug need to be especially vigilant when cleaning the bathroom, as viral particles may become airborne or contaminate surfaces. “The same goes for keeping clean hands—if we touch our mouth or eyes with hands that have viral particles you could become sick,” Columbus said.

Preventing dehydration

Children are more prone to becoming dehydrated from the virus than adults. Consuming drinks like Pedialyte (especially for children), diluted sports drinks or ginger ale with low sugar content can help calm your nausea and stave off dehydration. Soda or full-strength sports drinks should be avoided as the high sugar content in these beverages can worsen diarrhea.

Columbus noted once you are feeling better there is no reason to restrict the diet, other than avoiding foods containing high levels of fat or simple sugars, which, again, can worsen diarrhea.  “Soup is good because it is a good hydrator, but once you’re feeling up to it, the only limitation to what you may eat, other than high sugar, high fat foods, is what you can tolerate from a nausea standpoint,” she said.

Troubling symptoms to watch for

Columbus stressed you should consult your health care provider when experiencing stomach bug symptoms—especially any listed below.  Exhibiting one or more of these symptoms may point to bacterial or parasitic infections, which require more specific types of medication or therapy.

Contact your health care provider if:

  • You have a high fever
  • Symptoms last longer than a week
  • You experience severe dehydration
  • You see blood or pus in your stool
  • You experience severe abdominal pain or significant weight loss

“The stomach bug unpleasant to deal with,” Columbus said. “But, it doesn’t have to cause chaos in your household. Knowing the signs and reporting any adverse symptoms to your physician will help protect you and your family.”

— Madison Matous

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