Are you pregnant and think you might have contracted the stomach flu? Does that mean you and your baby are in serious danger?
During pregnancy, many illnesses can be more serious, not only because our immune systems are weaker, but also because we are supporting another human life inside 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 Stomach Flu?
The stomach flu isn’t actually the flu. Stomach flu, also known as gastroenteritis, is an illness caused by a virus or bacteria that affects your digestive tract, while the flu is caused by the influenza virus and affects mainly your respiratory tract.
Most cases of gastroenteritis are caused by either a viral or bacterial infection. The most common virus that causes stomach flu is norovirus, which is incredibly contagious. Other commonly known causes of gastroenteritis include rotavirus, salmonella, and E. coli.
When the virus or bacteria sweeps through the body, it can upset the balance of stomach acid, irritate the lining of the digestive system, and even cause an imbalance in the bacteria that live in our intestines. The result is vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and stomach pain.
In most cases, the infection is very mild and does not progress into anything serious. After around ten days, your body should have fought off the infection, rebalanced your gut bacteria, and healed any inflammation or damage caused by the infection (1).
Keep In Mind
How Can I Prevent Stomach Flu?
When it comes to a virus, the only preventions are vaccination (against rotavirus) and good hygiene. The viruses and bacteria 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 or going to the bathroom.
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.
Remember that vaccines are only effective against viruses. It is not possible to vaccinate against bacterial infections.
Editor's Note:Mary Sweeney, BSN, RN, CEN
When it comes to bacterial infections, good hygiene plays an even bigger role. Always wash your hands before preparing food, after handling diapers or using the restroom, or coming in from outside.
Bacteria and viruses are on virtually every surface you can think of and there is no surefire way of preventing exposure to them. It’s important to remember that when you are pregnant, your immune system is weaker and you might be affected by a virus or bacteria that you could normally fight off.
While no method is guaranteed to prevent you from getting sick, here are some helpful tips to help you prevent the stomach flu:
- Wash your hands: It’s especially important to wash your hands after visiting the restroom or changing a diaper, before preparing any food, after handling raw meats, or after any physical contact with a sick person.
- Be mindful of your food: Besides washing your hands carefully, you should also wash any fruits or vegetables that you eat. Because we tend to consume plants raw or only slightly cooked, it’s extra important to you make sure they are cleaned thoroughly. Cut off any areas that may have dirt and pesticides built up, such as the top of an apple. Peel anything you can, and wash the rest. Consider avoiding leafy salads and consuming only cooked greens.
- Beware of Raw Foods: Especially when pregnant, it is important to avoid foods that may contain salmonella or E. coli, such as pate, sushi, or raw eggs. Look out for anything raw, any meats that are not fully cooked, or anything reheated. These are all things that can breed dangerous bacteria.
Symptoms of Stomach Flu During Pregnancy
This is a very good question because it can be hard to tell. Cramping, vomiting, and diarrhea are all common symptoms during pregnancy, so don’t be surprised if you aren’t completely sure whether you have the stomach flu. Here are some clues that you might have a stomach bug:
- 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.
- A fever: Pregnancy can come with hot and cold sensations, because your body is full of hormones and learning to regulate its temperature while housing another human being. If you have a temperature of 100.3 degrees or higher, it’s more likely the stomach flu.
- Sudden changes in symptoms: If your pregnancy has involved no nausea and suddenly you are being sick every hour, or if you have been sick and suddenly experience diarrhea or fever, then you might have the 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 (2).
Risks of Stomach Flu While Pregnant
Everyday illnesses can become an even bigger problem when we’re pregnant. Many medicines, both conventional and alternative, may not be safe for use during pregnancy, and symptoms that would ordinarily just be annoying are now a little more serious.
Be sure you are hydrating as much as possible though, as dehydration can trigger preterm labor.
If you cannot keep anything down, including water, for more than 24 hours, it’s time to call the doctor.
Editor's Note:Mary Sweeney, BSN, RN, CEN
1. Anti-nausea Medications
Many anti-nausea medications are safe to take during pregnancy. These might not make it easy to eat, but they may ease your nausea and help you drink a little bit of water.
Talk to your doctor to determine which type of medicine is 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.
If you are suffering from vomiting and diarrhea, you are at risk of dehydration. This makes it especially important to watch for symptoms, including:
- Dry mouth and skin.
- Dark urine or passing small amounts of urine.
- Dizziness or feeling lightheaded.
- Rapid heartbeat.
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. You can also try drinking a sports drink like Gatorade or Powerade, which contain electrolytes that you may have lost during vomiting and diarrhea episodes.
If you’re severely dehydrated and are unable to keep food or liquids down, you may need IV hydration. Call your doctor or go to the nearest emergency room if you are experiencing the above symptoms.
Editor's Note:Mary Sweeney, BSN, RN, CEN
3. High Fever
If you have a fever over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, 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 safe for pregnancy and should not be taken unless your doctor prescribes them (3).
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.
Keep An Eye on Stomach Cramps
Pregnancy Safe Over-The-Counter Medicines
There are some over-the-counter medicines that are generally safe when you are pregnant and have 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. If you are having extreme nausea, your doctor may prescribe an anti-nausea medication called Zofran, but that is only under certain circumstances.
- 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: Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like include ibuprofen and naproxen should not be taken during pregnancy. These medications can cause miscarriage in early pregnancy and have been known to cause birth defects in later stages of pregnancy (5).
- Decongestants: They have been linked to birth defects (6).
- Some antibiotics: Certain antibiotics are not advised during pregnancy, and unless your stomach bug is caused by a bacteria, they will not be effective at resolving your symptoms. Antibiotics will only work with a bacterial infection (7).
Tips to Manage the Stomach Flu
These tips 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 nearby and just keep sipping.
- Avoid spicy and vinegary foods: Anything that will irritate your gut could trigger heartburn, which would make vomiting more likely.
- 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.
- Witch hazel wipes: All those trips to the bathroom can cause some irritation down below. These wipes can relieve burning and itching caused by repeated episodes of diarrhea.
- Rest: One of the best things you can do for yourself is to take it easy and rest. Your body needs time to recuperate, so now’s the time to find a comfy spot on your couch and stay there!.
When Do I Need to Go to the Emergency Room?
Sometimes it can be hard to decide whether it is worth your time, energy, and money to go to the emergency room or if this is just an illness that will pass. If you suffer any of these problems, then head to the emergency room:
- A fever over 100 degrees and your regular healthcare provider is not available right away.
- Your urine turns dark or stops, or you feel dizzy and confused — you might be seriously dehydrated.
- You haven’t held water down for a day, or food for two or three days.
- You feel cramping that is very severe and covers your whole abdomen.
- You notice a difference in your baby’s movements, no matter how well you feel otherwise.
- You are feeling very unwell or your instincts are telling you to get help right away. Don’t worry about overreacting; it’s always better to be safe than sorry.
Some Final Notes
It can be tricky business being sick during pregnancy and can be hard to tell what’s an illness and what’s pregnancy-related. Always call your doctor if you are in doubt, and don’t be afraid to ask them for recommendations on easing symptoms while dealing with the stomach flu.