When should I see a doctor if I have the stomach bug?

Sophie Wei
Sophie Wei24 Sep 2022

The stomach bug, also known as the stomach flu, affects up to 21 million people yearly. In the U.S., stomach flu is the second-most common illness. Although typically self-resolving, symptoms can be challenging to deal with at home. It is essential to know at what point you should visit your doctor.  

As a general rule of thumb, if your symptoms consist of frequent vomiting, inability to keep down fluids, severe diarrhea, or high fever, make sure to seek immediate medical attention. 

When should I seek medical assistance? 

It might be a sign that you need medical attention if you find your symptoms are becoming more severe or if your symptoms are lasting longer than expected. Call your primary care provider if you have experienced any of the following symptoms.  

  • Vomiting blood
  • Bloody diarrhea or blood in your bowel movements
  • Fever above 104 F
  • Severe abdominal pain or cramping
  • Unable to keep liquids down for over 24 hours
  • Severe dehydration - characterized by little to no urine production, dry mouth, or excessive thirst
  • Dizziness or loss of consciousness

Where should I go if I get the stomach flu?  

If you find that your stomach flu symptoms are becoming increasingly more severe and difficult to manage on your own, you must speak to a medical professional. Depending on the severity of your symptoms, you can either call your primary care physician or, if it is an emergency, go to the emergency room or urgent care. These institutions can provide you with adequate resources such as I.V. fluids and electrolytes to combat any possible dehydration or other serious complications

Urgent Care v.s Emergency Room 

A common misconception is that urgent care is the same as the E.R. These facilities vary drastically not only in the services they cover but also in cost and insurance coverage. Knowing what stomach symptoms warrant a visit to the E.R. or Urgent Care is important. 

In reality, urgent care is much more similar to a walk-in clinic. This is typically the best option for individuals who want same-day medical attention and whose primary care provider is not currently available. Urgent care clinics should not be utilized for emergencies and are ideal for any individual suffering moderate but not life-threatening stomach flu symptoms. 

On the other hand, the E.R. is generally reserved for any individuals with emergency medical issues. Stomach flu symptoms that indicate that you might need to seek emergency care include: 

  • Severe weakness
  • Mental confusion
  • Severe vomiting or vomit containing blood

Insurance Coverage 

It is essential to remember that both options can be costly, especially if you are uninsured or underinsured. 

Depending on the complexity of your treatment, your cost will vary for urgent care. On average, an urgent care visit can cost anywhere between $189-299 if you are uninsured. However, if you do have insurance, most urgent care centers accept major health insurance plans, including Medicare and Medicaid. 

For an E.R. visit, your costs will be significantly higher. For individuals without health insurance, an E.R. visit can cost up to $2200. However, if you are insured, your costs can be reduced significantly based on your coverage. All insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act are required to cover emergency services, but the amount you pay differs based on the plan that you purchased.

How can I treat the stomach flu at home? 

Since a virus causes stomach flu, there are no antibiotics that you can take. This means that there is technically no medical cure for this virus. However, there are numerous ways to manage your symptoms and get better as soon as possible. 

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Diet and Fluid Intake 

Dehydration is one of the main symptoms that can lead to more complications. Symptoms of vomiting, diarrhea and excessive sweating can all contribute to you losing fluids. As such, it is absolutely fundamental that you try to stay as hydrated as possible. If you find it difficult to keep liquids down, try taking small sips of water or chewing or sucking on ice cubes. Certain electrolyte sports drinks or Pedialyte drinks can also help prevent severe dehydration. 

Regarding food intake, try to stick with a bland but nutritious diet. It’s important not to neglect meals even though it might be difficult to keep food down. 

Some foods include: 

  • Soft fruits such as bananas, applesauce, and avocado
  • Soft or steamed vegetables such as carrots and potatoes
  • Low fiber starches such as white rice, white bread, and oatmeal

Some foods to avoid include: 

  • Spicy foods
  • Fatty or fried foods
  • Avoid fruits high in citrus
  • Avoid caffeinated beverages or alcohol

These foods could further irritate your gastrointestinal tract and make your stomach flu symptoms worse. However, it is essential to introduce these foods into your diet gradually; make sure to start with small sips of water and small chunks of ice. When vomiting stops, slowly add electrolyte liquids, clear broths, or soft foods like applesauce. 

Stomach Flu Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) 

The following are frequently asked questions about the stomach flu and how to appropriately manage it. 

What is the stomach flu? 

The stomach flu, also known as viral gastroenteritis, is caused by different viruses. Noroviruses or Rotaviruses cause the most common stomach flu. These virus types are highly contagious and can affect both children and adults. They are typically transmitted via contaminated food, utensils, water, or close contact with an infected person.

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When is stomach flu season? 

Stomach flu outbreaks are most common in the winter months. Generally, stomach flu is most common between November through April. This virus commonly spreads through contact with contaminated surfaces or by sharing food, utensils, or beverages with an infected individual. Make sure to be more cautious during this time.

What are the symptoms of stomach flu? 

Symptoms of the stomach flu can vary person-to-person but is generally characterized by: 

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain or cramping
  • Muscle aches
  • Muscle weakness
  • Headache
  • Low-grade fever

How long will I be sick and/or contagious?

Depending on the type of virus, your symptom onset, duration of illness, and how long you are contagious will vary.. The following outlines the differences between Norovirus and Rotavirus timing. 

  • Norovirus: symptoms appear 1-2 days after exposure, symptoms resolve in 1-2 days, you will be contagious for a few days afer your recovery
  • Rotavirus: symptoms appear 1-3 days after exposure, symptoms resolve in 3-8 days, but you can stay contagious for upwards of 2 weeks post-recovery.

How do I avoid getting the stomach flu? 

The best way to prevent infection with Norovirus or Rotavirus is always to maintain good hygiene and safe food consumption. This includes washing your hands frequently, washing fruits and vegetables before consumption, and cooking all your food thoroughly. Additionally, if you have a child, be extra careful, as childcare centers are at high risk for stomach flu transmission due to close contact. Children are also particularly at risk due to their vulnerable immune systems. 

If you find that a family member or roommate has been infected with stomach flu, take the appropriate precautions. Stomach flu can live on contaminated surfaces for up to 2 weeks to be sure to properly disinfect all surfaces that have come in contact with your infected family member or roommate. 

How do you sleep with the stomach flu?

Sleeping can be difficult when you feel nauseous or have trouble keeping food or fluids down. However, sleep is vital to your recovery, and it is essential to know how to sleep properly to avoid any risk of choking. Try to elevate the top half of your body and sleep on your side. Finally, keep a bucket or bag by your bedside if you need to vomit in the middle of the night. 

Bottom Line 

Several indications indicate that your stomach flu is severe enough to warrant medical attention. Based on the severity and urgency of these symptoms, exercise your judgment to decide whether or not to either call your primary care provider, go to urgent care, or visit the Emergency Room.

For just $25 a month, Mira offers affordable access to a primary care physician and discounted urgent care visits, in addition to transparent and affordable pricing on prescriptions, laboratory testing, and virtual care. If you have stomach flu, Mira can be an excellent resource for affordable and effective care. Sign up for Mira today! 

Sophie Wei

Sophie is a 2024 Pharm D. candidate studying pharmacy at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. She has a passion for healthcare and writing and hopes to make meaningful contributions to healthcare transparency and accessibility. In her free time, she likes to take care of her houseplants, cook, and hang out with her cat.