With the winter months and holiday season on the horizon, you’re likely doing everything in your power to stay healthy.
But sometimes getting sick is inevitable and knowing exactly what you’ve come down with becomes the priority to get proper treatment and avoid passing it along to others. The flu and COVID-19 are likely high on your radar, but you should also be aware of 24-hour flu.
Believe it or not, even though it’s called “the 24-hour flu,” it has nothing to do with the flu or flu virus at all. The 24-hour flu is a misnomer because influenza is an upper respiratory tract virus that does not involve the gastrointestinal tract, explained Nicholaos Bellos, MD, an infectious disease expert and the national medical director of extended care services at Quest Diagnostics.
People who have the 24-hour flu are actually experiencing a condition known as gastroenteritis, also often referred to as the stomach flu, he says. Gastroenteritis is commonly known as the 24-hour flu because the symptoms it causes may only last a day or two. That’s not always true, though, since GI issues caused by this condition can sometimes take up to 14 days to go away, Bellos said.
When it comes to the 24-hour flu, you don’t want to mess around. Here’s everything you need to know about this stomach bug, according to doctors.
So, what causes the 24-hour flu?
“Adult cases are usually caused by norovirus, also known as the winter vomiting bug, rotavirus, or food poisoning,” Bellos said. The virus or contaminated food causes your stomach and intestines to become irritated and inflamed, leading to gastroenteritis and the associated symptoms, he explains.
Both the norovirus and rotavirus are spread through coming into contact with someone who has the virus or their unwashed hands (especially after going to the bathroom or changing a diaper) or touching contaminated surfaces. Food poisoning, on the other hand, occurs when someone consumes contaminated food or water, Bellos said.
That said, the 24-hour flu is typically not airborne (caused by coughing, sneezing, or laughing), according to Natasha Chhabra, M.D., a gastroenterologist at Gastroenterology Associates of New Jersey. “People can get it through ingestion of contaminated foods, but usually more rapid spread is in crowded areas and more through direct contact rather than respiratory.”
What are the symptoms of the 24-hour flu?
Symptoms usually appear within four to 48 hours after coming in contact with the virus or eating contaminated foods. They can include abdominal pain, diarrhea, cramps, nausea, vomiting, and sometimes fever, said Dr. Bellos.
You may also have body aches, loss of appetite, or extreme fatigue, and dehydration is common if you’re throwing up or going to the bathroom a lot.
The tricky part is symptoms can be similar to those of the flu or COVID-19.
“COVID-19 can cause gastrointestinal symptoms, even when breathing problems are not present, so it’s important to look at other more severe health conditions when experiencing symptoms,” Bellos said. But simple tests can rule out COVID-19, the flu, or bacterial infections.
And while anyone can get the 24-hour flu, those with a weakened immune system are at a higher risk, Chhabra said. Young children, elderly people, and anyone who is immunocompromised or taking medications that suppress their immune system are more likely to develop severe symptoms.
Does the 24-hour flu really go away in a day?
“For most people, the illness goes away in a few days, and you can be contagious from a few days to two weeks or more, depending on which virus caused the gastroenteritis,” Bellos said.
However, in the case of the norovirus, you may still be contagious a few days after you recover.
The 24-hour flu is very contagious, so the best way to avoid getting others sick is to limit contact, disinfect all surfaces (counters, door handles, faucets, etc.), and practice good hand washing (that means rinsing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds), Bellos said.
The virus can also remain in your stool for up to two weeks after recovery, so hand washing after using the bathroom is absolutely essential, he added.
How do you treat the 24-hour flu?
Most cases go away on their own with rest and plenty of fluids, but Chhabra recommends hydrating with electrolytes, such as drinking Vitamin Water, Gatorade or even Pedialyte.
If you’re struggling to keep anything down, drink small amounts of water or electrolyte fluids (two to four ounces) every 30 to 60 minutes, Bellos added. You should also stick to bland foods like bread, crackers, or rice, and avoid anything heavy or flavorful.
“Sometimes antidiarrheals like Imodium can be used, but that should be discussed with your doctor before using in case there is an infection that requires more specific treatment like an antibiotic,” Chhabra said.
A probiotic supplement may also be helpful to restore the gut flora, which can be thrown off when you’re dealing with an infection or virus.
“There’s not one probiotic that’s considered much better than others, but a probiotic in general supplies you with good bacteria and can help mitigate symptoms,” Chhabra added.
You may not feel the effects of the probiotic right away, but you’ll notice (and feel!) a difference over time.
When should you see a doctor?
If you have diarrhea that lasts more than several days or notice blood in your stool, then you need to seek medical care, Chhabra said. Prolonged nausea that lasts more than one to two weeks is also a sign that it’s time to check in with your doc.
Dehydration is another major concern with the 24-hour flu, so if you feel lightheaded, dizzy, delirious, or have dry mouth, lips, or eyes, then you need to go to the emergency room or urgent care ASAP, Chhabra said.