When a stomach bug sets up camp, you need proven methods to bounce back quickly.
getty sick in bed image
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The stomach bug is a familiar foe. The telltale signs of gastroenteritis—vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, stomach pains and aches—affect 19 to 21 million people every year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If you find yourself on the sick side of the norovirus (the virus that causes the stomach flu), here’s how you can cope, recover, and get back to your favorite foods in no time.

When it’s safe to try and drink or eat something

You may first experience symptoms of the stomach flu 24 to 72 hours after you’re exposed to the virus—most likely from another sick person—and it will take another 24 to 72 hours for the symptoms to run their course. However, you don’t have to wait the full three days before you can begin to resupply your body with hydration and soft foods.

While you’re still actively sick, there’s no need trying to drink or eat. It will just make a return visit. Instead, wait for the vomiting to stop. Give yourself four to six hours after the last time you vomit before you attempt to drink fluids.

Drink fluids slowly

Don’t gulp down a sugary sports drink when you feel like you can safely keep liquids in your belly. Instead, drink a tablespoon of a water or broth and wait 20 minutes. You can also eat a small handful of ice chips. If you’re able to keep this fluid down, drink a tablespoon more, and wait 10 minutes.

If these fluids stay down, you can sip slowly—don’t gulp—to help you replace all the fluids your body lost while you were sick.

Liquids that are safe to drink after a stomach flu include:

  • clear liquids, such as ice, broth, or stock
  • ice chips
  • nutrient-dense drinks like Pedialyte
  • sports drinks with low sugar
  • tea without caffeine, such as ginger or peppermint

Avoid drinks that are caffeinated because the substance can irritate your stomach lining. Sugary drinks, including sports drinks or soda, can be irritating as well, and alcohol is a no-go in the days after a stomach virus. It can greatly irritate your gastrointestinal tract and also make you urinate out the nutrients your body desperately needs.

If you get sick again or begin feeling ill, stop drinking fluids and give your stomach a rest. Start the whole process again in a few hours until you can comfortably drink without hurting or feeling ill.

Eat the BRAT diet

After 24 hours of fluids, you can begin to introduce bland foods. However, don’t rush into a big bowl of oatmeal or a super-sweet smoothie. Instead, start with a BRAT diet—bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast.

Bland foods are suggested because they are easy to digest, provide several vital nutrients, and strengthen your stomach lining after a brutal few days of illness. It is important, however, you keep a few things in mind when you’re picking out which of these foods to make:

Bananas: These tropical fruits are easy to digest and replenish your potassium, an important electrolyte you lose while sick. Start with half a banana, and wait to finish the other half until you’re sure you won’t hurt your stomach.

Rice: While brown rice might be your go-to whole-grain option for weeknight meals, you want the processed white type here. It’s easier for your body to break down because it has less fiber, so it’s less likely to upset your stomach or cause cramping.

Applesauce: Opt for a no-sugar-added variety, which will be easier on your stomach than one made with lots of sweeteners. The natural sugar and carbs will provide a boost of energy and help calm your stomach.

Toast: Just like rice, you want white bread here, too. Whole-wheat bread has too much fiber and can be difficult to digest.

You may need to follow this bland-food regimen for several days until your stomach can recover. Be sure to avoid greasy or fatty foods during this recovery period, as well as foods with lots of spice, dairy, or fiber. Recovery from the norovirus takes some time, so don’t be in a rush back to your favorite burger or BLT. Your stomach needs to heal.

By Kimberly Holland and Kimberly Holland