Ugh, the dreaded stomach flu. ‘Tis the season for this unpleasant illness, which technically isn’t the flu at all. It’s actually gastroenteritis, and it’s frequently caused by two viruses: rotavirus and norovirus.
Unfortunately, gastroenteritis is quite common during pregnancy. A study conducted in Sweden suggests that as many as one-third of women will experience the disease during their pregnancy. Gastroenteritis symptoms can be severe, causing dehydration and even preterm labor in cases that are severe and go untreated. Symptoms can include:
- Nausea and vomiting
When is it time to see the doctor for gastroenteritis?
If you can’t keep anything down, even clear liquids, it’s time to see the doctor. We’ll want to make sure you aren’t dehydrated, and we’ll perform laboratory tests to rule out medical emergencies that have similar digestive symptoms, such as appendicitis. While fever isn’t typically a symptom of preterm contractions, abdominal cramping and even diarrhea can be signs of preterm labor.
Most cases of gastroenteritis pass within a week and can be managed at home. Still, we encourage you to let your nurse or Ob/Gyn know you’re under the weather. Your provider can discuss with you whether anti-diarrheal or anti-nausea medications would be helpful.
The Swedish study found that even though gastroenteritis can make a pregnant woman feel awful, the vast majority of the pregnancies studied had good outcomes. However, severe cases can cause pregnancy complications. When a pregnant woman becomes severely dehydrated or spikes a high, lasting fever, she can go into preterm labor.
If your symptoms are mild or your doctor confirms that it’s safe to manage your symptoms at home, stock up on a few items:
- Acetominophen, to reduce fever. Limit your total dose to 3,000 mg in 24 hours – but for the first day take it on a schedule (for example, two 325 mg tablets every six hours).
- Electrolyte drinks, such as Pedialyte or sports drinks. Excessive diarrhea or vomiting causes the body to lose electrolytes, which are salts that help your muscles function properly.
- Bland foods, such as bananas, mashed potatoes, and rice. You don’t have to limit yourself to these foods, but many women find bland foods easier to keep down than rich foods as they recover.
- Cleaning agents, such as disinfectant wipes or sprays. When you start to feel like yourself again, disinfect the surfaces in your house. Focus on high-traffic areas, such as the bathroom and kitchen. Remember to wipe down your door knobs, the refrigerator door handle, the toilet, and bathroom faucet handles.
How can pregnant women avoid gastroenteritis?
As is the case with most viruses, the best way to avoid gastroenteritis is to understand how it’s transmitted. The disease is spread similarly to other viruses:
- Touching contaminated surfaces and then touching your mouth or face
- Sharing cups or utensils with an infected person
- Eating food contaminated with the virus
- Contracting the virus from the air
Perhaps not surprisingly, many pregnant women contract gastroenteritis from their older children at home. Children have an uncanny knack for touching everything in sight and picking up germs, viruses, and bacteria to share with the family. To reduce your risk of infection, wash your hands often at work and wash your children’s hands regularly at home and in public. Also, when you’re out and about, try to avoid touching your eyes or mouth – these are two of the body’s most common gateways for infection.
If you contract gastroenteritis, be patient with your body. Enlist the help of your partner, friends, or family members to help care for your children and pets for a few days. Your housework and social responsibilities can wait – the best thing you can do for yourself and your pregnancy is to alert the doctor, rest, and stay hydrated.