Treatment of Viral Gastroenteritis (“Stomach Flu”)
How can I treat viral gastroenteritis?
In most cases, people with viral gastroenteritis get better on their own without medical treatment. You can treat viral gastroenteritis by replacing lost fluids and electrolytes to prevent dehydration. In some cases, over-the-counter medicines may help relieve your symptoms.
Research shows that following a restricted diet does not help treat viral gastroenteritis. When you have viral gastroenteritis, you may vomit after you eat or lose your appetite for a short time. When your appetite returns, you can most often go back to eating your normal diet, even if you still have diarrhea. Find tips on what to eat when you have viral gastroenteritis.
If your child has symptoms of viral gastroenteritis, such as vomiting or diarrhea, don’t hesitate to call a doctor for advice.
Replace lost fluids and electrolytes
When you have viral gastroenteritis, you need to replace lost fluids and electrolytes to prevent dehydration or treat mild dehydration. You should drink plenty of liquids. If vomiting is a problem, try sipping small amounts of clear liquids.
Most adults with viral gastroenteritis can replace fluids and electrolytes with liquids such as
- fruit juices
- sports drinks
Eating saltine crackers can also help replace electrolytes.
If your child has viral gastroenteritis, you should give your child an oral rehydration solution—such as Pedialyte, Naturalyte, Infalyte, and CeraLyte—as directed to replace lost fluids and electrolytes. Oral rehydration solutions are liquids that contain glucose and electrolytes. Talk with a doctor about giving these solutions to your infant. Infants should drink breast milk or formula as usual.
Older adults, adults with a weakened immune system, and adults with severe diarrhea or symptoms of dehydration should also drink oral rehydration solutions.
In some cases, adults can take over-the-counter medicines such as loperamide (Imodium) and bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol, Kaopectate) to treat diarrhea caused by viral gastroenteritis.
These medicines can be unsafe for infants and children. Talk with a doctor before giving your child an over-the-counter medicine.
If you have bloody diarrhea or fever—signs of infections with bacteria or parasites—don’t use over-the-counter medicines to treat diarrhea. See a doctor for treatment.
How do doctors treat viral gastroenteritis?
Your doctor may prescribe medicine to control severe vomiting. Doctors don’t prescribe antibiotics to treat viral gastroenteritis. Antibiotics don’t work for viral infections.
In some cases, your doctor may recommend probiotics. Probiotics are live microbes, most often bacteria, that are like the ones you normally have in your digestive tract. Studies suggest that some probiotics may help shorten a case of diarrhea. Researchers are still studying the use of probiotics to treat viral gastroenteritis. For safety reasons, talk with your doctor before using probiotics or any other complementary or alternative medicines or practices.
Anyone with signs or symptoms of dehydration should see a doctor right away. Doctors may need to treat people with severe dehydration in a hospital.
How can I prevent viral gastroenteritis?
You can take several steps to keep from getting or spreading infections that cause viral gastroenteritis. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water
- after using the bathroom
- after changing diapers
- before and after handling, preparing, or eating food
You can clean surfaces that may have come into contact with infected stool or vomit, such as countertops and changing tables, with a mixture of 5 to 25 tablespoons of household bleach and 1 gallon of water.7 If clothes or linens may have come into contact with an infected person’s stool or vomit, you should wash them with detergent for the longest cycle available and machine dry them. To protect yourself from infection, wear rubber gloves while handling the soiled laundry and wash your hands afterward.7
If you have viral gastroenteritis, avoid handling and preparing food for others while you are sick and for 2 days after your symptoms stop.7 People who have viral gastroenteritis may spread the virus to any food they handle, especially if they do not thoroughly wash their hands. Contaminated water may also spread a virus to foods before they are harvested. For example, contaminated fruits, vegetables, and oysters have been linked to norovirus outbreaks. Wash fruits and vegetables before using them, and thoroughly cook oysters and other shellfish.7 Find tips to help keep food safe.
The flu vaccine does not protect against viral gastroenteritis. Although some people call viral gastroenteritis “stomach flu,” influenza (flu) viruses do not cause viral gastroenteritis. However, rotavirus vaccines can prevent viral gastroenteritis caused by rotavirus.
Two vaccines, which infants receive by mouth, are approved to protect against rotavirus infections8
- RotaTeq: Infants receive three doses, at ages 2 months, 4 months, and 6 months
- Rotarix: Infants receive this vaccine in two doses, at ages 2 months and 4 months
For the rotavirus vaccine to be most effective, infants should receive the first dose by 15 weeks of age. Infants should receive all doses by 8 months of age.
If you have a baby, talk with your baby’s doctor about rotavirus vaccination.
This content is provided as a service of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
(NIDDK), part of the National Institutes of Health. The NIDDK translates and disseminates research findings to increase knowledge and understanding about health and disease among patients, health professionals, and the public. Content produced by the NIDDK is carefully reviewed by NIDDK scientists and other experts.