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How Long Does the Stomach Flu Last?

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How Long Does the Stomach Flu Last?

writtenByWritten by: Margaret A Spera, NP, APRN
Margaret A Spera, NP, APRN

Margaret A Spera, NP, APRN

Margaret Spera is a Connecticut-based nurse practitioner. She has worked in hospital settings, family practices and senior care facilities for over 40 years.

Read more posts by this author.

December 9, 2020 Read Time - 9 minutes

The stomach flu lasts from 1 day to several weeks, but whether the uncomfortable symptoms last days or weeks depends on the virus causing it. The incubation period for stomach flu also depends on which virus is causing the symptoms. Generally, the stomach flu will incubate in 1 to 3 days. Learn more about the duration of the stomach flu and preventative measures below.

Stomach Flu Symptoms and Duration

Diarrhea that is watery and lacks mucus or blood is the most common symptom, but it can be accompanied by:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Muscle ache or pain

Diarrhea can lead to dehydration — symptoms of dehydration include:

  • Thirst
  • Less frequent and/or dark urine
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness especially with changing position, i.e from lying to standing
  • Confusion

Several types of viruses can cause the stomach flu, how long each lasts, varies. Norovirus and rotavirus are the most common.

  • Norovirus (the most common cause of stomach flu in the United States) — Incubates in 1 to 2 days. Symptoms last 1 to 2 days. For children vomiting is more common than diarrhea. It produces symptoms such as:
    • diarrhea
    • vomiting
    • abdominal cramps
    • Fever
    • Headache
    • Muscle Cramps
  • Rotavirus (most common in children) — Incubates in 1 to 3 days. Symptoms of rotavirus are similar to the norovirus as detailed above, but they last longer; approximately 5 to 7 days.
  • Astrovirus — Incubates in 3 to 4 days. Has similar symptoms as the above viruses, but symptoms of astrovirus are more mild. Symptoms of the astrovirus also last 5 to 7 days. Astrovirus rarely infects adults.
  • Andenoviruses — Diarrhea lasts for 1 to 2 weeks. Can be accompanied by low grade fever and mild vomiting, particularly with infants and children. Andenoviruses rarely affect adults.

Related: Stomach Virus Signs, Symptoms, and Treatments


Similar Illnesses

What is the Stomach Flu? Stomach flu is a common term for viral gastroenteritis, which is inflammation along the linings of both the stomach and intestines.

What is not the stomach flu? You may have heard some terms getting used interchangeably with stomach flu; sometimes this is appropriate and other times not. Let’s clear the air.

  • Influenza is the real flu and it attacks the lungs, throat, and nose. This is completely different than the stomach flu, which attacks the stomach and intestines. The ‘stomach flu’ is not actually related the ‘the flu.’
  • Viral Gastroenteritis and the stomach flu are the same thing and these terms can be used interchangeably.
  • Bacterial Gastroenteritis is very similar to the stomach flu, but caused by bacteria and may have some different symptoms. Bacteria are more likely to cause diarrhea containing blood or mucous. Gastroenteritis caused by bacteria usually lasts 1 to 3 days, but can occasionally last longer than a week. There are many strains of bacteria that lead to similar symptoms of stomach flu including E. coli and Salmonella.
  • Parasitic Infections can also have very similar symptoms of stomach flu. In addition to chronic diarrhea, parasitic infections can cause nausea, vomiting, muscle pain, and in some cases abdominal cramps. Symptoms caused by Giardia last approximately 2 weeks. Fatigue and weight loss can accompany the chronic diarrhea. Diarrhea rarely contains blood if caused by parasites.
  • Food poisoning is a more specific term that indicates a bacteria or virus was contracted by eating or drinking contaminated food or water, whereas stomach flu can be contracted in other ways and is specific to viruses. Stomach flu can certainly be transmitted via food or drink and in such a case, would also be considered food poisoning.
  • Food sensitivities like lactose intolerance and celiac disease can cause inflammation in the bowels and lead to symptoms similar to the stomach flu.
  • Typhoid fever can have similar symptoms as stomach flu, but typhoid fever is caused by a specific type of Salmonella. Diarrhea may be absent or less prevalent for patients with typhoid fever. Typhoid fever requires medical diagnosis, whereas the stomach flu can usually be self-diagnosed. Contact a doctor if you suspect you have typhoid fever.
  • Traveler’s Diarrhea is gastroenteritis acquired from travel. It is called traveler’s diarrhea because traveling to other regions (particularly to developing countries) can expose a person to unsanitary drinking water. Traveler’s diarrhea is most frequently caused by the bacteria E. coli.
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Stomach Flu in Kids vs. Adults

Stomach flu symptoms in adults is certainly uncomfortable; but for children, elderly, or immunodeficient people it can be deadly. An estimated 1.5 million children die worldwide from stomach flu each year. Deaths caused by stomach flu are concentrated in developing countries where poor sanitation conditions promote the spread of pathogens.

Rotavirus, astrovirus, and andenoviruses are more common viral causes of the stomach flu in children, whereas norovirus is more common in adults.

Diagnosis and Stomach Flu Treatment

Diagnosis is mostly based on a careful medical history. Occasionally stool studies are sent to exclude other kinds of infections. There is no specific treatment for viral gastroenteritis however, some medications can be appropriate for alleviating symptoms of stomach flu. Antibiotics are not effective against viruses that cause the infection and should not be taken. Note that antibiotics might be needed to treat bacterial gastroenteritis. Ask a doctor if you think you might have bacterial gastroenteritis.

  • Medication — How long does a stomach flu last? Unfortunately, the illness isn’t shortened by medication. Stomach flu infections are self-limiting and symptoms will run their course without using any treatments. Antidiarrheal medications are appropriate in some cases, but can cause further problems in others. Ask a doctor before taking antidiarrheal medication. Certain antiemetic (antinausea) drugs might be appropriate to alleviate vomiting symptoms. Ask a doctor for an appropriate antiemetic drug and dosage if vomiting symptoms are particularly harsh.
  • Diet — The most important part of treatment is staying well hydrated by drinking a fluid solution with electrolytes. Clear liquids such as broth or, gingerale are recommended. Ask your doctor for a recommended hydration solution (sports drinks might not be appropriate, especially if trying to manage stomach flu in kids). Many foods and beverages act as natural diarrhetics. Avoid alcohol, coconut, and other food or drink that lubricate the bowels. Solid foods should be avoided until symptoms subside. Some foods can be difficult on the digestive system and should be avoided if stomach flu symptoms are present. Avoid greasy or spicy foods, as well as dairy and high fiber products.
  • Sleep — Good rest is always crucial when getting over an illness. Avoid caffeinated products such as coffee, tea, and chocolate and get some good z’s.

How to Prevent the Stomach Flu

Contracting the stomach flu often occurs by consuming contaminated water, which arises from poor sanitary conditions. Once infected, the stomach flu can be transmitted from person to person quite rapidly. Pathogens are found in feces or vomit and can easily contaminate hands, water, or surfaces. If contaminated surfaces, hands, or water enter the mouth the stomach flu is likely to spread to a new host.

On top of these home remedies to reduce the duration of your symptoms, hygienic and sanitary measures should be taken to help prevent the spread or contraction of stomach flu. Infected people are contagious as soon as early stomach flu symptoms arrive, and infected people continue to be contagious for at least a few days after symptoms are resolved. Diligent care should be taken to prevent spreading the stomach flu if you or someone you know is infected.

  • In the kitchen — Wash hands properly before preparing a meal or eating food. Hand sanitizers reduce the amount of germs, but it does not replace washing hands. Avoid sharing dishware and utensils. Infected people should not prepare food for others while experiencing symptoms and for at least 2 days afterwards. If you are in a location where water quality is a concern, drink bottled water or treat the water with sanitation tools such as iodine tablets, filters, or good old-fashioned boiling.
  • While caregiving for children or others — Children with diarrhea should not be taken to child care facilities. Frequently check infant’s or toddler’s diapers and do not change diapers near water or food preparation surfaces. Wash hands properly or use disinfectant after changing a diaper. Breastfeeding can offer some protection compared to using formula as bottles can often be a source of contamination.
  • While traveling — Avoid swimming if you have diarrhea, and do not swallow water while swimming whether or not you are infected. Take particular caution in areas where water quality is an issue. Drink bottled or treated water while traveling.
  • Around the household — Use separate personal items around your household. Disinfect hard surfaces with bleach-based cleaner if you suspect someone in your home is infected. A do-it-yourself cleaner can be made with 1.5 cups of household bleach per 1 gallon of water. Wash potentially contaminated clothing promptly — be careful when handling and consider using rubber gloves. Furthermore, avoid shaking contaminated materials so that particles don’t spread to other surfaces. Wash hands properly after using the bathroom.
  • Environmental aspects — Contracting the stomach flu is more common in the winter. Be extra cautious during these months to follow good hygiene and sanitary procedures. Stomach flu can spread extra-rapidly in confined and heavily populated spaces such as schools, dormitories, cruise ships, nursing homes, daycare centers, and places where people congregate. Regardless of environment, good hand washing habits are always recommended.
  • Vaccines — Most adults develop immunity to the rotavirus variety of stomach flu, but can be carriers and transfer the virus to children. Fortunately vaccines for rotavirus are available and they are the best way to protect a child from rotavirus. Rotovirus vaccines are taken orally.

Note that flu vaccines do not protect anybody from the stomach flu! Nor will a rotavirus vaccine protect against other stomach flu inducing pathogens such as norovirus. Vaccines are currently only available for rotavirus and you cannot be immunized for norovirus or other viruses that cause the stomach flu.

  • Book on our free mobile app or website.

    Our doctors operate in all 50 states and same day appointments are available every 15 minutes.

  • See a doctor, get treatment and a prescription at your local pharmacy.

  • Use your health insurance just like you normally would to see your doctor.

PlushCare-App-Steps

When to contact a doctor

It is important to call your doctor if you are unable to keep liquids down, have been vomiting more than two days or are showing signs of severe dehydration (dizziness, weakness, dark urine). Serious cases of dehydration can lead to hospitalization; especially for infants, older adults, or people with immune deficiencies. Bloody diarrhea, persistant abdominal pain, and high fever are also reasons to contact your medical provider. If you’ve experienced early stomach flu symptoms, you can always ask a doctor if there is a need for tests or if medication is appropriate/safe.

If you think you have symptoms of the stomach flu, call or book online with PlushCare to set up a phone appointment with a top U.S. doctor today.

Read more of our stomach flu series:

Sources:

PlushCare is dedicated to providing you with accurate and trustworthy health information.

Cleveland Clinic. What to Do When Your Stomach Bug Won’t Go Away. Accessed on February 6, 2021 at https://health.clevelandclinic.org/what-to-do-when-a-stomach-bug-wont-go-away/

Medline Plus. Viral gastroenteritis. Accessed on February 14, 2021 at https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000252.htm

Livewell. Have the Stomach Flu? 4 Ways to Treat Symptoms at Home. Accessed on February 6, 2021 at https://www.unitypoint.org/livewell/article.aspx?id=e153f1d7-3469-4d34-916a-b712479a78fe

Most PlushCare articles are reviewed by M.D.s, Ph.Ds, N.P.s, nutritionists and other healthcare professionals. Click here to learn more and meet some of the professionals behind our blog. The PlushCare blog, or any linked materials are not intended and should not be construed as medical advice, nor is the information a substitute for professional medical expertise or treatment. For more information click here.

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