As the cooler months of the year approach, the stomach flu season starts up in the United States. It starts as early as October and ends around April each year, usually peaking in January. The stomach flu is an acute viral infection marked by profuse diarrhea, sometimes vomiting, nausea, abdominal cramps and a fever. The symptoms usually last for 2 to 3 days and do not require treatment. However, the duration and approach to managing the stomach flu largely depends on the cause. While the stomach flu itself is not dangerous, the complications such as dehydration can be deadly if not properly managed.
Stomach flu is a viral infection of the gastrointestinal tract commonly referred to as a tummy bug. It is more correctly known as viral gastroenteritis. Despite its common name, it is not caused by the influenza virus that is responsible for the seasonal flu. Adenoviruses, noroviruses and rotaviruses are responsible for most cases. Gastroenteritis caused by adenoviruses tend to occur throughout the year but norovirus and rotavirus infections tend to peak during what is known as the stomach flu season in the colder parts of the year.
However, it is important to bear in mind that infectious gastroenteritis may also be caused by bacteria and certain protozoa. These microbes tend to cause outbreaks when food or water in an area are contaminated. It is also a common cause of traveler’s diarrhea. Viruses are still the main cause of acute gastroenteritis and primarily responsible for the seasonal outbreak of the stomach flu. The tips below are for preventing gastroenteritis irrespective of whether it is due to viruses, bacteria or protozoa.
Wash your hands regularly
Your hands are one of the main ways that stomach bugs are transmitted to your mouth and enters your body. It may get on to your hands when you touch contaminated surfaces and other inanimate objects (fomites) that a person who has the flu previously touched. Even shaking hands with an infected person can mean that the germs are now on your hands.
Washing your hands regularly can help destroy these germs. A good antibacterial soap or antiseptic hand wash is usually sufficient to disinfect your hand. The key is to wash your hands regularly, particularly before you eat a meal and after using the toilet. Even if antibacterial soaps are unavailable, wash your hands thoroughly with regular soap and warm water.
Do not touch your mouth
While washing your hands regularly is very effective in preventing the stomach flu, just as important is not touching your face or mouth unnecessarily. You may transmit the germs on your hands to your mouth thereby allowing it to enter your gut in the same way as eating contaminated food or drinking contaminated water.
Most of us have the habit of touching our face several times in a day and it is quite an unconscious action. Putting your fingers in your mouth or biting your nails should be strictly avoided if you want to prevent the stomach flu during outbreaks. Even if you are eating with your hands, make sure that you wash thoroughly before a meal.
Avoid close personal contact
The stomach flu bugs can be spread through droplets (saliva or nasal mucus) in the air even if you do not make direct skin-to-skin contact with the infected person. There is no need to totally avoid a person or quarantine them but avoid very close contact for long periods of time. Touching, hugging and kissing loved ones who are ill should be avoided as far as possible for at least a few days.
However, it is not always easy to spot a person who does have the stomach flu and may not tell you that they have recently been ill. As a good measure to prevent contracting the bug, you should try not to be too close to any person’s face. Politely tell work colleagues and associates who you know are ill that you cannot be too close to them as you do not want to contract the infection.
Prepare food hygienically
Food and beverages are perfect conduits for the bugs that cause the stomach flu. When ingested the bug is deep within the gut where it is able to thrive and cause illness. Therefore it is important that food is prepared hygienically. It is not just about the food that has already been prepared and served to you that is a problem. Even within your own home you can contaminate food.
Always wash your hands thoroughly before touching food that you are going to prepare. Ensure that it is placed and handled on clean surfaces within the kitchen. Never taste and place a spoon back in the dish. Even if you do not have symptoms right now, you may have already been infected and can infect others in your home with the food contaminated with your saliva.
Eat at reputable facilities
One of the common ways that infections such as the stomach flu are transmitted is through eating food at restaurants, fast food outlets and street vendors. The kitchen staff handling the food in outlets may themselves be infected or touched contaminated objects and then handled your food. Fortunately there are many regulations in place to ensure good food hygiene at commercial outlets.
However, individual staff members may not always be as conscientious about good hygiene as they are supposed to. Therefore the risk always exists and you should be cautious about eating out when there is a stomach flu outbreak. Be careful about facilities where the health standard appears to be questionable. These smaller outlets may not be as strict about good food hygiene in the kitchen.
No sharing food, drink or personal items
Even if food and drink is not contaminated at the time of preparation, it can still be a medium to transmit stomach flu bugs if shared with a person who has the virus. Saliva can contain the virus which may contaminate food or drinks when shared and even the utensils, dishes or packaging. It is safe to share items if the saliva of the person who is infected will not make contact with what you will subsequently eat or drink.
Similarly sharing personal items like a towel can be a problem. Saliva, nasal mucus and even fecal particles that may contaminate a towel particularly in the bathroom can serve as a medium through which you will contract the infective particles. Rather dry your hands on a clean towel, your own handkerchief or use disposable paper towels.
Article reviewed by Dr. Greg. Last updated on November 3, 2013