YOU START TO FEEL nauseated. You can’t believe it.
Was it something you ate? A friend who was sick?
Turns out it doesn’t matter. Ahead is at least one bad night followed by several iffy days. For stomach upset caused either by a virus or by bacteria from food, doctors label it “gastroenteritis,” meaning irritated and inflamed stomach and intestines. Most people have an easier time saying “stomach bug.” The virus Rx is more important for those around you: Once it hits, you’ve already been contagious for several days, and can be altogether for up to two weeks.
Both possibilities, virus and bacteria, can take several days to make you sick, so don’t blame your friend’s garlicky “bachelor pasta” from the night before. And since symptoms of both can last up to 10 days, don’t plan another fun food night right away. (Having just emerged from a bout, I have now studied everything I wish I’d known during the days I felt too terrible to turn on a computer.)
What to do? In the acute stage, first try Coca-Cola. While some experts advise room temperature as well as stirring to get rid of the fizz, cold and carbonated can taste delicious. (I have never liked syrupy soft drinks, but that icy red can appeared like an oasis in the desert of my recent agony.) When Coke fails, if you’re lucky enough to have a Rx anti-emetic on hand, they work like magic. Ondansetron (Zofran) is an easy name to keep in mind, but others work well, too. Lacking one of these, Pepto-Bismol is surprisingly helpful with both nausea and vomiting. And once the acute stage passes, both Pepto-Bismol and Pepcid help counter the unseemly gases that emerge in what can only be called belching.
Then there’s diet. Move slowly, one day at a time. Remember: Your stomach is irritated and tender. Determined to be well again, I tried a large bowl of cereal with milk and was set back days of unpleasantness. And no treats. No ice cream, no cookies, salad, no meat. On the other hand, real danger can result from dehydration, so consuming liquids is imperative.
The first thing to try is sucking ice cubes, followed by clear liquids in small sips. Only then can you dig out the exciting white Rice and Applesauce. Make Toast. Ask a friend to bring Bananas if you can stomach them. (This is the BRAT diet, designed to ease your body back to normal eating.) When you’re still in the desert of unpleasantness if not agony, a steaming bowl of Uncle Ben’s can look quite appetizing. To spruce up applesauce, add a side of saltines. Other possible stomach soothers: peppermint and ginger, starting with tea and progressing to crystallized ginger, pickled ginger (comes with sushi) and, could it be, ginger cookies? Trader Joe’s Triple Ginger Snaps exploded with exciting flavor like they never had before. The following day consider eggs, cooked vegetables and chicken–small amounts eaten more frequently can work better than one larger serving. The last to return: fatty or spicy foods, caffeine, alcohol and dairy–which is why that bowl of cereal was a truly terrible idea.
The goal is to relax, especially the stomach. To fight the bug and repair the damage, your body needs to rest. This becomes obvious when any exertion from a traffic jam, to a work deadline, to an intense movie or a demanding book can make the nausea much worse very quickly. Choose carefully. For me, the maximum possible stressor was “Orange Is the New Black,” fortunately streamable for hours on end but not a good idea on a suffering stomach. Approaching the end of Week 1, I still moved more slowly and ate carefully. But even before adding the saltines, I emailed my doctor for more Ondansetron, hoping against hope I would not need it again any time soon.
— Mary Carpenter [subscribe2]