It’s no fun having the stomach flu – unless, of course, you enjoy being parked by the toilet. Most cases of acute gastroenteritis or stomach flu caused by a virus only lasts for a few days – but new research shows there may be lingering intestinal problems after a gastrointestinal infection. And that’s bad news for people who catch a “stomach bug”.
The Stomach Flu and Lingering Gastrointestinal Problems
When researchers from the Naval Medical Research Center in Maryland studied over 30,000 cases of acute gastroenteritis – mostly due to viruses – diagnosed over an eight year period, they found people with these gastrointestinal infections were more likely to have bowel problems even after the infection had resolved. Bowel problems ranged from minor disturbances such as functional constipation, diarrhea, and indigestion to more disabling ones such as irritable bowel syndrome.
Acute Gastroenteritis and Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Previous studies already have already shown that people who have a bout of stomach flu are more likely to develop the common condition known as irritable bowel syndrome.
Irritable bowel syndrome is a functional disorder where the walls of the intestines contract with too much or too little force. This causes symptoms of chronic bloating, gas, and diarrhea, which can alternate with constipation. The result is abdominal discomfort, bloating, and unpredictable bowel habits. For most people, the symptoms are chronic and difficult to treat.
According to one study, people who had a bout of acute gastroenteritis were ten times more likely to develop irritable bowel syndrome within a year of their diagnosis. Not surprisingly, the stomach flu is now considered a risk factor for irritable bowel syndrome.
Why Would the Stomach Flu and Gastrointestinal Infections Cause Ongoing Intestinal Problems?
One theory is gastrointestinal infections alter the normal gut flora or bacteria that live in the intestines. This makes it easier for less friendly, methane-producing bacteria to take up residence in the gut. When these bad bacteria churn out methane, it alters intestinal motility, which can lead to symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, persistent diarrhea, or constipation. Viruses that cause the stomach flu may also alter the immunity in the gut, which allows bad bacteria to invade.
The Stomach Flu and Gastrointestinal Problems: The Bottom Line?
Is there a way to prevent these problems after a bout of acute gastroenteritis? It seems unlikely that antibiotic therapy would be of benefit since most cases of the stomach flu are caused by viruses. On the other hand, the right antibiotic combination could help to ward off the bad bacteria that cause problems later.
One potential way to prevent these problems that hasn’t been adequately researched is the use of probiotics. Introducing “friendly bacteria” into the intestines during a bout of acute gastroenteritis could help prevent the invasion of bacteria that can cause intestinal motility problems after the infection resolves. Hopefully, further research will look more closely at this – and give stomach flu sufferers a little long-term relief.
Medscape.com. “Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders Follow Infectious Gastroenteritis”
Medscape.com. “Infectious Gastroenteritis Linked to Irritable Bowel Syndrome”
BMJ 1999; 318 : 565 (Published 27 February 1999)