As uncomfortable as they are, there's a reason why stomach bugs are often called "24-hour viruses." The nausea, vomiting and diarrhea that accompany them are usually short-lived.
Sometimes, however, one or more symptoms continue long past their expected expiration dates. When that happens, there could be more behind a tummy ache than a common virus.
Neil Sparks, DO, CepEsperu Baptist Health, explains what you should do when your upset stomach goes on for too long or doesn't present in a typical manner.
Sorting Out Your Symptoms
Most viruses causing nausea, vomiting and diarrhea last 1 to 3 days. Another sign of a virus is that the symptoms usually occur together. If you have only one symptom, vomiting only, for example, it may mean something else is going on.
In addition, if your illness is accompanied by any of the following symptoms, it may be the sign of a serious illness:
- Weight loss
- Blood in the stool or vomit
- Black stool or vomit
- Inability to eat or drink
- Severe dehydration (darker than normal urine or no urine, extreme thirst, dizziness, dry mouth/skin, extreme weakness)
- More than 3 episodes of diarrhea or vomiting a day for several days
- Abdominal pain
- Chest pain
- Severe headache*
*Particularly be on the lookout for the pairing of a severe headache with vomiting, which can potentially indicate a serious health emergency like meningitis.
If you're only experiencing one of the typical stomach upset symptoms, experiencing stomach upset with additional symptoms (like those listed above), or your symptoms are lasting for more than 48 hours, you should consider making an appointment with your primary care provider. Not only do you want to make sure there's not something more serious going on, you also want to prevent complications. Vomiting and diarrhea can both cause dehydration if they go on for too long.
Managing Stomach Symptoms at Home
If you suspect you have a run-of-the-mill virus, let it run its course. Not much has been proven to help shorten the duration of typical stomach upset. It is, however, important to make sure you stay as hydrated and nourished as possible. Advance your diet as much as you can tolerate it. Bland foods are ideal because strong flavors and smells are more likely to trigger nausea when you're sick.
You might also consider drinking sports drinks to help rebalance your electrolytes. Just keep in mind that the high sugar content of such drinks may upset your stomach again.
Over-the-counter remedies, such as Pepto-Bismol®, can be somewhat effective at helping you reduce vomiting and diarrhea, depending on the severity of your illness. And ginger may help reduce feelings of nausea. Of course, you should always check with your physician before starting medications or supplements.
Over the long run, work on adding fiber to your diet. This will help bulk up your stools if you experience chronic diarrhea. Don't forget to practice good hygiene and observe food safety guidelines to reduce your risk of contracting stomach viruses down the road.