Have a sensitive stomach? Try these16 steps to prevent stomach flu
Gastroenteritis can affect people of all ages – especially children. Here's how to prevent it.
Woman experiencing stomach flu. Picture: iStock
The stomach, small intestine and large intestine (colon) are part of your digestive tract. A virus may infect the digestive tract and cause inflammation which leads to viral gastroenteritis (stomach flu).
The signs and symptoms include watery diarrhoea, stomach cramps, nausea or vomiting – and sometimes fever.
One is exposed to viral gastroenteritis through contact with an infected person or by consuming contaminated food or water. Many of those infected usually recover without complications.
Children, the elderly and people who have compromised immune systems will, however, experience severe symptoms which can lead to death.
There’s no effective treatment for viral gastroenteritis, so prevention is key.
Urgent medical concerns for adults and children with diarrhoea and vomiting
As an adult, you need to see your doctor urgently if:
- You have diarrhoea and vomiting for more than two days.
- You are not able to eat or drink for more than a day.
- There is blood in your vomit or stools.
- You have signs of dehydration, like excessive thirst, dry mouth, deep yellow urine or little or no urine, and severe weakness or dizziness.
- You have severe stomach pain.
- You have a fever above 40°C.
For infants and children, take them to the doctor if they:
- Have a fever of 38.9°C or higher
- Seem tired or very irritable.
- Seem like they are in a lot of discomfort or pain.
- Have bloody diarrhoea.
- Have signs of dehydration.
- Are vomiting frequently.
- Haven’t had wet diapers in six hours.
- Have a sunken soft spot (fontanel) on the top of the head.
- Cry without tears.
- Are unusually sleepy, drowsy or unresponsive.
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Causes of stomach flu
You are most likely to get viral gastroenteritis when you eat or drink contaminated food or water. You may also be likely to get stomach flu if you share utensils, towels or food with someone who has one of the viruses that cause the condition.
Many viruses can cause gastroenteritis, including:
These are the most common cause of foodborne illness worldwide. It usually affects families and communities.
It is especially likely to spread among people in confined or crowded spaces. In most cases, you pick up the virus from contaminated food or water.
But it can also spread between people who are in close contact or who share food. You can also get the virus by touching a surface that’s been contaminated with norovirus, and then touching your mouth.
This is the most common cause in children, who usually get infected when they put their fingers or other objects contaminated with the virus into their mouths.
It can also spread through contaminated food. The infection is most severe in infants and young children. Adults with rotavirus may not have symptoms, but can still spread the illness, especially in settings like hospitals, where they can unknowingly infect others.
Gastroenteritis occurs all over the world, and can affect people of all ages. People who may be more susceptible include:
- Small kids. Children in crèches may be especially vulnerable because it takes time for a child’s immune system to mature.
- Elderly people. As people grow older, their immune systems become weaker. In old age homes, the elderly also live in close contact with others who may pass along germs.
- Anyone with a weakened immune system. Your immune system may be compromised by HIV/ Aids, chemotherapy or another chronic medical condition and put you at risk of developing this condition or having more severe symptoms.
The main complication of viral gastroenteritis is dehydration – which is a severe loss of water and essential salts and minerals.
If you’re healthy and drink enough to replace fluids you lose from vomiting and diarrhoea, dehydration shouldn’t be a problem.
Infants, older adults and people with weakened immune systems may become severely dehydrated when they lose more fluids than they can replace. Hospitalisation might be needed so that lost fluids can be replaced through a drip in their arms. Dehydration can rarely lead to death.
Can you prevent stomach flu?
The best way to prevent infection or spread in communities is:
- Vaccinations. A vaccine against rotavirus exists in South Africa for children in the first year of life.
- Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water and teach your children to do the same.
- Wash your hands after changing diapers and before preparing or eating food. It’s best to use warm water and soap, and to rub hands well for at least 20 seconds.
- Use separate personal items around your home. Avoid sharing eating utensils, drinking glasses and plates.
- Use separate towels in the bathroom.
- Prepare food safely. Wash all your fruits and vegetables.
- Clean kitchen surfaces before preparing food on them.
- Avoid preparing and handling food for others if you’re sick.
- Social distancing from people who have the virus or even diarrhoea.
- Avoid touching laundry that may have been exposed to a virus.
- Take precautions when travelling. When you’re travelling in other countries, you can become sick from contaminated food or water. You may be able to reduce your risk by drinking only well-sealed bottled or carbonated water.
- Avoid ice cubes because they may be made from contaminated water.
- Use bottled water to brush your teeth.
- Avoid raw food, including peeled fruits, raw vegetables and salads.
- Avoid undercooked meat and fish.
- Avoid street food.