One minute you're perfectly fine; the next, you're racing to the nearest bathroom. Stomach flu, or what is correctly called viral gastroenteritis, is serious business.
The stomach flu is technically not influenza at all. We call it that because it makes us feel just bad as seasonal flu does, but with symptoms concentrated in the pits of our guts. You know it when you have it: diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, cramps and sometimes fever. Stomach flu symptoms — which can range from mild to horrific — can last 24 to 48 hours or as long as 10 miserable days.
Antibiotics won't help because the cause of your discomfort is viral. You can head to the store for some medication, but do you really want to swallow drugs when nearly everything makes you queasy? Here are some home remedies for the stomach flu that likely won't cure you, but the treatments may help ease the ickiness for a while.
Things to do
This might sound obvious, but the most natural remedy for stomach flu — or any illness — is to rest your body, and sleep as much as possible. Being sick can take a toll on your body and make you weak and tired. Your body needs rest to fight infection, so don't feel guilty about staying in bed or lounging in your pjs on the couch.
2. Stop eating
If you're feeling queasy, or especially if you're vomiting, give your stomach a break. Let things settle for a few hours and don't eat anything.
Put a heating pad or microwaveable heat pack on your stomach to ease cramps and stomach pain.
4. Cold compress
A cold compress won't stop your cramps or vomiting, but putting a damp, cool cloth on your forehead can be comforting when your insides are in turmoil.
Things to drink
5. Ice chips
One dangerous side effect of stomach flu is dehydration. But when you're feeling horrid, you may not be able to keep anything in your stomach — even tiny sips of water. The next best thing is an ice chip or two. Suck on a few to stay hydrated.
6. Clear fluids
When you have diarrhea or you're vomiting, you need to increase the amount you're drinking. WebMD suggests 1 cup of fluid every hour for adults. Sip slowly so you keep it down. Water may not be enough, so try sports drinks (for the electrolytes) or clear broth. Skip caffeinated, sugary or carbonated drinks because they can make diarrhea worse. Sometimes room-temperature fluids taste better when you don't feel great and are easier to drink.
7. Rice water
Rice water (water left over after boiling brown rice) is high in electrolytes. Strain it, cool it and sip it. A study published in the Lancet found it eased diarrhea in babies better than an electrolyte solution.
Things to eat
Getting something in your stomach as you recover will give you strength, and it will help keep stomach acids regulated. Doctors used to suggest sticking only to the BRAT (bananas, rice, applesauce, toast) diet for a few days, but now they say that's OK for just the first 24 hours. You might find certain foods really aggravate your stomach. Early on, you might want to avoid dairy products, caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, and fatty or very seasoned foods, according to the Mayo Clinic. Your body needs other nutrients from a more varied diet to recover fully.
Bananas are easy to digest and high in potassium, a nutrient often lost through diarrhea. They're also high in pectin, a fiber that helps ease diarrhea.
9. Other bland foods
When you think your stomach can take it, start adding more bland foods back to your diet. Try easy-to-digest foods like chicken, rice and gelatin. Protein from lean meats and well-cooked eggs can give you energy. If you want fruits and vegetables, eat them cooked, not raw.
10. Crackers and pretzels
Snack on foods like these that are high in sodium. Salt helps you retain water so you don't get dehydrated. Be sure to keep drinking while you eat.
Usually dairy products aren't a good choice when you have a stomach bug because they can be hard to digest. But live bacteria — the probiotics — in yogurt help bring your digestive system back into balance. Be sure to choose plain, unsweetened yogurt.
Like yogurt, this fermented milk drink is rich in probiotics, which can help replenish the good bacteria in your gut.
Herbs to try
With its natural anti-inflammatory properties, this ancient herb has long been used as a digestive aid and natural nausea remedy. You can try ginger capsules, drink ginger tea or ginger ale made with real ginger root, or you can chew a piece of ginger root.
Peppermint is another herb widely used to fight upset stomach. Studies have found that mint can help ease symptoms of indigestion and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Even chewing peppermint gum can calm the stomach, but the most effective use of mint for upset stomach is as tea.
15. Tea (rooibos, chamomile, fennel)
Rooibos tea, also known as red tea, is said to calm the digestive tract and ease stomach cramps. Chamomile, too, has soothing properties. Fennel may help with indigestion, gas, bloating and cramping and is easy to take in tea form.
Folklore that might work
16. Burnt toast
Plain toast is a nice bland food good for the early days of a stomach bug. But people (maybe even your grandma) claim that burnt toast soaks up the toxins in your stomach that are contributing to your illness.
17. Apple cider vinegar
Some people swear by this concoction. Mix 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar and 1 tablespoon of honey in 1 cup of warm water. It may help with gas and cramps.
Medicine (and not quite medicine)
Most medicines won't make your stomach flu better. In fact, be careful about using medicines like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) because they can make your stomach even more upset. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) usually causes fewer problems, but use it with caution. The best drug is patience.
19. Probiotic supplements
The nausea, vomiting and diarrhea of stomach flu come from a build-up of “bad bacteria” in the colon and digestive tract. Often, taking antibiotics brings on these symptoms, because antibiotics wipe out both the good and bad bacteria in your body. Probiotics, organisms used to replenish the good bacteria in your gut, can bring your digestive system back into balance. Discuss probiotic supplements with your doctor, as there are three specific types that work best for stomach flu.
Editor's note: This story was originally published in August 2015 and has been updated.