Stomach Flu and Pregnancy -- Ways to Look After You Both

Is your belly starting to hurt and you see signs you might have contracted the stomach flu? Does that mean you and your baby are in danger?

When we are pregnant, all illnesses are more serious, if only because our immune systems are weak, and we are carrying a teeny tiny, vulnerable human inside us.

But not all illnesses are created equal. Some are harmless during pregnancy, and others can pose a serious risk to either our babies or us.

Before you’re left to imagine the worst-case scenario, we’ll let you know what to do if you have the stomach flu while pregnant.

What Is A Stomach Flu Anyway?

The stomach flu is, as you might already be guessing, is not a flu. Unlike the ordinary flu, which comes from the influenza virus and affects your muscles, chest, and sinuses mostly, this illness does not usually leave our digestive tract and sometimes isn’t even caused by a virus.

It is actually an infection that affects your stomach and intestines. You might also know it by the name gastroenteritis.

Most cases are caused by either a viral infection, or by eating something bad for you. The most common virus which causes stomach flu is the rotavirus, which most people are fortunately vaccinated against.

Other causes you might have heard of include dysentery, norovirus, salmonella, and E. coli.

When the virus or bacteria sweeps through your body it can upset the balance of our stomach acid, irritate the lining of your whole digestive system, and even cause an imbalance in our gut bacteria. The result is vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and stomach aches.

In most cases, the infection is very mild and does not progress into anything serious. After around 10 days your body should have fought off the infection, rebalanced your gut bacteria, and healed any inflammation or damage caused by the infection (source).

Keep In Mind

It might take up to three weeks to feel your usual self when you are pregnant, but you can speed this up by eating well and remembering your vitamins.

How Can I Prevent Stomach Flu?

When it comes to a virus, the only preventions are vaccination and good hygiene.

They can spread many different ways, including:

  • Human contact.
  • Touching something an infected person has touched.
  • Eating contaminated food.
  • Not washing your hands after changing a diaper.

If you are vaccinated your body will have antibodies, special cells that attack the virus. If there is no vaccine, then washing your hands before touching your face or mouth is essential for prevention.

When it comes to bacterial infections, good hygiene plays an even bigger role. Always wash your hands when preparing food, handling diapers, or coming in from outside.

There are bacteria everywhere and there is no surefire way of preventing exposure to them, however. When you are pregnant, your immune system is weaker and you might be affected by bacteria you could normally fight off.

Besides washing hands carefully, you should also wash any fruit or vegetables you eat. Because we tend to consume plants whole and raw or only slightly cooked, we need to make sure they are clean all over.

Cut off any big dips, like the top of an apple, where dirt and pesticides could have built up. Peel anything you can, and wash the rest. Consider avoiding leafy salads and consuming only cooked greens.

Be on the Lookout For Raw Foods

When pregnant especially, it is important to avoid foods which may contain salmonella or E. coli, such as pates, sushi, or raw eggs. Look out for anything raw, any meats that are pink in the middle, or anything reheated, as these are all places we can find dangerous bacteria.

Do I Have a Stomach Flu?

This is a great question because it can be hard to tell. Cramping, vomiting, and diarrhea are all common during pregnancy, so don’t be surprised if you aren’t entirely sure whether you have the stomach flu.

If you want to know, keep an eye out for:

  1. Other people with the same symptoms: If your pregnancy has been going okay so far and suddenly everyone in your house is vomiting and having gut cramps, you probably have what they have.
  2. A fever: Pregnancy can come with hot and cold sensations, because your body is learning to regulate its own heat again. But if you have an actual fever, it’s more likely a stomach flu.
  3. Pain higher up in the stomach or in the chest: Some slight pains low in your belly and in your hips and back are normal throughout pregnancy, and especially later on as your body prepares for childbirth. But if you have cramps and pain in your chest or upper belly, that is a stomach or intestine problem.
  4. Sudden changes in symptoms: If your pregnancy has involved no nausea and suddenly you are sick every hour, or if you have been sick and suddenly experience diarrhea or fever, then you might have a stomach flu.

If you experience any of these symptoms, or if your instincts are telling you something is seriously wrong, then see your doctor right away (source).

What Are The Risks While Pregnant?

All illnesses are a problem when we’re pregnant. There are many medicines, both conventional and alternative, that aren’t safe, and the symptoms that ordinarily might have just been annoying are now a serious matter.

If you are too sick, it’s not a big problem if you cannot eat well for a day or more. Contrary to popular belief, so long as you are a healthy weight and taking in enough calories to make up for it over the next week, your baby will be fine.

Our bodies are very well equipped to survive nausea during pregnancy.

Take Note

The only real concern is if you are underweight, in which case you need to see your doctor for advice.

1. Anti-nausea Medications

Many anti-nausea medications are safe to have during pregnancy. These might not make it easy to eat, but they will at least stop you from feeling awful and help you drink a little bit of water.

Talk to your doctor to make sure you pick a safe one. They’ll help you determine which type will be right for your circumstances and health history.

Ginger is a natural anti-nausea medication that is safe to take in pregnancy. Drink ginger ale or take ginger pills as an antidote to many cases of nausea.
Headshot of Christine, Traxler, MD, BS

Editor's Note:

Christine Traxler, MD, BS

2. Dehydration

If you are suffering from vomiting and diarrhea, you are at risk of dehydration. This makes it especially important to watch for symptoms, including:

If you notice any of these symptoms, you could be seriously dehydrated and need to see a doctor as soon as possible.

There are rehydration salts that are perfectly safe to use, even when pregnant. If you have had vomiting and diarrhea for a day or more, you might need rehydration salts to help keep you hydrated.

If It’s Bad

If you’re severely dehydrated, you may be hooked up to an IV instead.

3. High Fever

A high fever can be dangerous to your baby. Any fever over 100 degrees Fahrenheit could lead to complications during pregnancy, congenital disabilities, or miscarriage.

If you have a high fever, call your doctor right away. If this is not possible, go to your local emergency room.

Your doctor will be able to advise you about what medications can safely lower your fever. Generally acetaminophen, such as Tylenol, is perfectly safe, but aspirin and ibuprofen are not to be taken unless your doctor prescribes them (source).

Cramping too much could affect your baby. If you are having intense cramps, lie down so your womb has plenty of room even with the cramps and bloating.

Watch For These Signs

If they are very painful, they are low in the stomach, or your instincts are telling you something is wrong, call an ambulance as you may be having other problems with your pregnancy (source).

Pregnancy Safe Over-The-Counter Medicines

No medication is completely safe during every pregnancy. There will always be the rare case where someone cannot take a certain medication. So if you have any doubts, always talk to your doctor first.

However, some over-the-counter medicines are generally safe when you are pregnant and have the stomach flu.

  • For pain: Acetaminophen is good for short-term use. Small doses of paracetamol are also safe. No other painkillers are advised without consulting a doctor first.
  • For nausea: Antacids that list calcium carbonates or calcium are usually safe.
  • For diarrhea: A short use of antidiarrheal treatments is generally safe, but avoid products like Pepto-Bismol and other antidiarrheal treatments with salicylates listed. When in doubt, ask your doctor. A fiber supplement can also help.
  • For dehydration: Most rehydration salts are safe and a fiber supplement can help you hold onto water.
  • For fever: Only acetaminophen is recommended.
  • For nutrition: Make sure you are taking your pregnancy vitamins and consider a fiber supplement.

Make sure you avoid:

  • NSAIDs: These include ibuprofen and naproxen. They can affect your baby’s blood flow.
  • Decongestants: They have been linked to birth defects.
  • Some antibiotics: Certain ones are not advised during pregnancy, but because a virus or a bacterial infection can cause the stomach flu, you should be talking to your doctor before even considering using an antibiotic anyway. Antibiotics will only work with a bacterial infection (source).

Safe Home Remedies For Stomach Flu

Although if you have any complicated symptoms such as persistent diarrhea or dehydration you will want to see your doctor, sometimes a home remedy is a good idea.

Maybe your symptoms are mild, maybe you can’t take any over-the-counter medication, or maybe your doctor has given you the all clear to go home, but you feel just awful.

There are some remedies which will help you manage your stomach flu at home, even when you are pregnant.

These tricks could help you feel more yourself until you recover:

  • Plenty of fluids: Just getting enough water should help you feel much better when you have the stomach flu. Keep a warm tea or doctor-approved herbal drink and just keep sipping.
  • Avoid spicy and vinegary foods: Anything that will irritate your gut could trigger heartburn, which would make vomiting more likely and less comfortable.
  • Ginger: Ginger has a compound called gingerol that is an anti-inflammatory and stomach acid neutralizing remedy. If you have it before bed, it could help you get a good night’s sleep.
  • Strong candy: Sucking on sour, peppermint, or aniseed candy could help you balance your stomach acid and hold your food down.
  • Sea bands: These acupressure bands stimulate specific points to help relieve nausea.
  • Witch hazel wipes: These wipes can relieve your bum when you are sore from swelling and diarrhea.
  • Meditation: If you are exhausted and in a lot of pain, you might need to practice meditation to keep you focused through it all (source).

When Do I Need To Get To The Emergency Room?

Sometimes it can be hard to decide whether it is worth your time, energy, and money to get to the emergency room or if this is just an illness that will pass.

If you suffer any of these problems, then get to the emergency room:

  • If you have a fever over 100 degrees and your regular health care provider is not available right away.
  • If your urine goes dark or stops, or you feel dizzy and confused, you might be seriously dehydrated.
  • If you haven’t held water down for a day, or food for two or three days.
  • If you feel cramping that is very severe and covers your whole abdomen, get checked.
  • If you notice a difference in your baby’s movements, no matter how well you feel otherwise.
  • If you are feeling very unwell or your instincts are telling you to get help right away. Don’t feel like it can’t be serious enough, because it definitely can be and it is better to be safe than sorry.
  • If it doesn’t go away after 10-14 days, go to the emergency room.

Some Final Notes

Always play it safe with illness. You might feel like it’s no big deal, or like you know exactly what it is, but make sure your healthcare providers know you are ill, and try to see them.

It is much better to be a little bit cautious than to let yourself get any worse.

Have you had the stomach flu while pregnant? Were there any special tricks that got you through it?

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