Herbal Home Help for Tummy Bugs

Tv3 16th February 2010


Tummy bugs, stomach flus and gastroenteritis are names given to infections which can last anywhere from 24 hours to 1 week and will affect about 1 in 5 people in Ireland throughout the year. We are all more vunerable to infection in the winter and early springtime and the incidence is higher in children than adults. 


Gastroenteritis Symptoms

By definition, gastroenteritis will cause irritation and inflammation of both the stomach and the intestines, resulting in both vomiting and diarrhea. Typically, the severity of these symptoms will vary based on the type and severity of the infection, the ability of our immune system to respond and our level of hydration. 



Common symptoms include:

  1. Low grade fever to 37.7_C (100_F)
  2. Loss of appetite
  3. Nausea with or without vomiting
  4. Mild-to-moderate diarrhoea
  5. Crampy painful abdominal bloating

More serious symptoms

  1. Blood in vomit or stool

  2. Vomiting more than 48 hours 

  3. Fever higher than 40_C (101_F) 
  4. Swollen abdomen or abdominal pain


  1. Vomiting blood or having bloody or black bowel movements are not normal, and emergency care should be accessed. 
  2. Fever, increasing severity of abdominal pain, and persistent symptoms should not be ignored and contacting your primary care provider should be considered if these symptoms are present.
  3. If your child has a tummy bug which lasts longer than 24 hours or you think it was caused by food poisoning, you should ring your medical herbalist or doctor for advice.
  4. If at any time your child becomes listless, floppy and groggy, you should call your doctor immediately, as these are signs of dehydration.

What causes a tummy bug?

Viral infection is the most common cause of gastroenteritis but bacteria, parasites, and food-borne illness (such as shellfish) can be the offending agent.
Gastroenteritis caused by viruses may last one to two days. On the other hand, bacterial cases can last for a longer period of time.


  1. 50-70% of tummy bugs in adults are caused by the noroviruses, a common cause of ‘the winter vomiting bug’.
  2. Rotavirus is the leading cause of infection in children
In children the commonest cause is rotavirus. Norovirus is gaining in importance but rotavirus identification is still about 4 times as common. The incubation period for a virus is about a day and they are highly contagious.


Bacteria may cause gastroenteritis directly by infecting the walls of the stomach and intestine. The incubation period can be about 4 days.
  1. Staphlococcus aureus can form a toxin that is the cause of the symptoms and is the most common type of food poisoning. Symptoms of Staphylococcus aureus infection are usually apparent with n 2-6 hours of infection.

  2. Escherichia coli (E. coli) from poor personal and food hygiene. Bloody diarrhoea can often be a sign of infection.
  3. Salmonella contracted from handling poultry or reptiles such as turtles that carry the bacteria. Symptoms usually apparent within 12-72 hours of infection.
  4. Campylobacter - from the consumption of undercooked meat, unpasteurised milk.
  5. Shigella - typically spread from person to person
  6. Clostridium difficile (C difficile) bacteria may overgrow in the large intestine after a patient has been on antibiotics for an infection (usually hospital aquired). Symptoms usually apparent within 8-10 hours of infection.

Parasites and protozoans

These tiny organisms are less frequently responsible for intestinal irritation. You may become infected by one of these by drinking contaminated water. Swimming pools are common places to come in contact with these parasites. The incubation period can be about 7-10 days and so these infections often present after returning home from a foreign trip. Common parasites include these:
  1. Giardia - The most frequent cause of waterborne diarrhea, causing giardiasis 

  2. Cryptosporidium - Affects mostly people with weakened immune systems and causes watery diarrhea.

Other common causes

Gastroenteritis that is not contagious to others can be caused by chemical toxins, most often found in seafood, food allergies, heavy metals, antibiotics, and other medications.

Common ways to pick up these bugs include;

  1. Change in eating habits with foreign travel.
  2. Contaminated well water or drinking from outside sources such as mountain streams.
  3. Contaminated swimming pool water.
  4. Undercooked or improperly stored or prepared food (such as potato salad at a picnic).
  5. Recent use of broad-spectrum or multiple antibiotics. You may have an antibiotic-associated irritation of the gastrointestinal tract.

Risk Factors

  1. Poor personal hygiene and lack of sanitation increase the incidence.

  2. A compromised immune system leaves the patient vulnerable to gastroenteritis e.g. AIDS.

  3. Longterm use of medications that suppress the immune system.
  4. Low stomach acid or longterm use of acid suppressing medications increase the risk, especially for Salmonella and Campylobacter. The acidic environment of the stomach has an important immune function and works by immediately killing invading microbes as they cannot survive in this hostile acidic environment.
  5. Infection may arise from poorly cooked food, cooked food that has been left too long at room temperature or from uncooked food such as shellfish. Insufficient reheating of food not only fails to kill bacteria, but may speed up multiplication and increase the bacterial load ingested. Even if reheating of cooked food kills bacteria, enterotoxins such as staphylococcal exotoxin, are not destroyed.
Your medical herbalist or doctor may perform physical examinations to help rule out any other underlying cause for the symptoms such as; appendicitis, gallbladder disease, pancreatitis, diverticulitis or inflammatory bowel disease etc. Urinary tract infection, constipation with overflow and pre-eclampsia in pregnant women must be ruled out and if warrented, you may need other lab tests, including a complete blood count, electrolytes, and urinalysis kidney function tests. Stool samples may be tested for blood and different types of infection.

Why choose the Herbal Route?

Doctors usually don't prescribe antibiotics until bacteria have been identified. Antibiotics may be given for certain bacteria, specifically Campylobacter, Shigella, and Vibrio cholerae, if properly identified through laboratory testing. Otherwise, using any antibiotic or the wrong antibiotic can worsen some infections or make them last longer. Some infections, like salmonella, are not treated with antibiotics. With supportive care of fluids and rest, the body is able to resolve the infection without antibiotics. Of course, most tummy bugs are caused by viral infections which antibiotics cannot treat. In addition to this they are likely to cause the infection to last longer as they will further lower the natural effect of the immune system.
Vomiting and diarrhoea are the bodies natural way of eliminating toxins and it is best to allow this process but with careful monitoring so as not to become dehydrated. 
Herbal medicines can help ease symptoms. A medical herbalist can prescribe suitable anti-viral or anti-bacterial herbs for most infections, uniquely tailored to the individual. A medical herbalist is trained to know when to refer you for appropriate antibiotic or hospital treatment if necessary. 

Herbal Help and Self-Care at Home

Tummy bugs produce dramatic symptoms and it can be especially worrying to see your child suffering from diarrhoea and vomiting but, generally speaking, tummy bugs are not serious. The vast majority of cases are viral in origin and vomiting, diarrhoea and fever usually subside after 24 hours.
  1. Drink plenty of fluids—Continued vomiting and diarrhoea can lead to dehydration. Dehydration can increase the severity of other symptoms and lead to more serious conditions. Take fluids only for the first 24 hours.
  2. Limit your food intake—When your stomach is upset due to a virus or infection it will not be able to tolerate most foods well. The key to relieving stomach pain and increasing your strength is eating easily digestible foods such crackers, plain dry toast, rice, applesauce (without minimal sugar), and broths only after vomiting and diarrhoea have stopped (ie. Usually after 24 hours). Avoid milk and dairy products, caffeine, alcohol, nicotine and fatty or highly seasoned foods for a few days. Any food eaten in the interm, will merely serve to further irritate the stomach and will be vomited. Stop eating if nausea returns.
  3. Allow the body to eliminate the toxins but use herbs to support the immune system, kill the invading microbes, reduce gastric irritation and inflammation and ease symptoms of nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.
  4. Use essential oils of herbs with anti-viral properties in your oil burner; lavender, tea tree, sandalwood, thyme, clove, oregano.
  5. Get plenty of rest—One of the best ways to deal with the abdominal pain and other stomach bug symptoms is to sleep as much as you can. During periods of sleep the body is better able to concentrate on killing the virus and repairing the damage of the infection.

Signs of Dehydration

  1. Weakness, 
  2. Lightheadedness,
  3. Decreased urination,
  4. Dry skin, 
  5. Dry mouth and 
  6. Lack of sweat and tears
Mild symptoms of dehydration are likely to occur and in 95% of cases can be managed with oral rehydration at home. It is essential to keep rehydrated as moderate to severe dehydration will require hospitalisation for intravenous rehydration
  1. Vomiting will stop as fluid and electrolyte balance are corrected.
  2. The best time to take in fluids is directly after vomiting, there is an increased chance of keeping it down.
  3. Only take small sips of fluid every 10-15 minutes. Small amounts are less likely to cause irritation and be vomited. 

Treating Children

  1. Monitor your child’s urine output and colour. If your child has not passed urine for three or four hours and/or it is dark yellow in colour, he/she may not be getting enough fluids.
  2. Children should be rehydrated with fluids with a good balance of electrolytes (see below for recipe). Rehydration with plain water can affect the sodium concentration in the body.
  3. After each loose stool, children younger than two years should be given 25-75ml of any of rehydration fluid. Older children should be asked to drink 75-225ml. Adults should drink as much as possible. 

  4. Even if very thirsty, I recommend further dividing the above amounts into small 5-10ml sips every 10 minutes. Drinking larger amounts can distend and further irritate the stomach, increasing nausea and the risk of vomiting. Don't be put off if they are sick again; even if they retain some fluids it will do them good.
  5. If you have a sick infant, let your baby's stomach rest for 30 to 60 minutes, then offer small amounts of liquid. If you're breast-feeding, let your baby nurse. If your baby is bottle-fed, offer a small amount of their usual formula, little and often (about 5ml at a time).
  6. Avoid giving your child dairy products and sugary foods, such as ice cream, sodas and candy. These can make diarrhea worse.
  7. Seek medical attention if your infant shows signs of dehydration, such as dry mouth and skin, marked thirst, sunken eyes, or crying without tears. In an infant, be alert to the soft spot on the top of the head becoming sunken and to nappies that remain dry for more than eight hours.

Herbal Rehydration Tea

So what did we ever do before the invention of commercial lemonades and sports drinks? To replace lost electrolytes the body basically needs sodium and sugar. The following recipe will help to replenish these electrolytes naturally and also offer the added benefits of chamomile and ginger.
Ginger is anti-spasmodic, anti-inflammatory and anti-emetic and so will help to relieve cramping, reduce inflammation and reduce nausea and vomiting. Chamomile is also anti-spasmodic and anti-inflammatory but moreover is anti-microbial. In particular it contains chamazulene, which is active against Staphlococcus aureus. In addition, chamomile is relaxing and so will help to calm upset children.

Herbal Rehydration Tea

2 tbsp honey or sugar
1/4tsp table salt
1/4tsp baking soda
2tsp chamomile flowers
1inch raw ginger root sliced
1Litre boiled water
Boil 1 litre of water, add the salt, baking soda, honey, chamomile and ginger. Stir, cover and leave to infuse for 10 minutes. Strain through muslin and sip a little every 10-15 minutes.

Kelli’s Yummy Tummy Popsicles

Children are sometimes reluctant to drink fluids but a homemade popsicle can be much more inviting. These are ideal for cooling down high temperatures and slowly rehydrating the system. I just simply pop some of my herbal rehydration tea into a mold, place it in the freezer for a couple of hours and they are ready to go!
Handy Tips!
  1. Popsicle molds are available in most cookware shops but you can always make your own by using a recycled yoghurt carton and a lollipop stick. Faries occasionally leave popsicles with individuals names on them in our freezer for little girls with tummy bugs!
  2. As the nausea and vomiting subsides, you can substitute the ginger and chamomile for 1tsp fennel seeds and a few fresh peppermint leaves. These herbs will help to relieve gas and ease the associated cramping caused by the toxic metabolites of the bad bacteria in the gut.

Dehydration in adults

Although adults and adolescents have a larger electrolyte reserve than children, electrolyte imbalance and dehydration may still occur as fluid is lost through vomiting and diarrhea. Severe symptoms and dehydration usually develop as complications of medication use or chronic diseases such as diabetes or kidney failure, however, symptoms may occur in healthy people.Clear fluids are appropriate for the first 24 hours to maintain adequate hydration. 
After 24 hours of fluid diet without vomiting, begin a soft-bland solid diet.

Herbs to Consider

Agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria)
This herb has an astringent action and can help to alleviate excessive diarrhoea. The tannins and flavonoids in the herb will help to heal and the slightly bitter action will help the flow of gastric juices and the assimilation of food once you start to reintroduce food. 
Adult dose: 15-20 drops 3 times daily, added to rehydration tea or taken in water.
Caution! Not to be used in pregnancy, while breastfeeding or if taking anti-coagulant medication such as aspirin or warfarin as agrimony contains coumarins which are powerful anti-coagulant plant constituents.
Black Horehound (Ballota nigra)
This herb is anti-emetic and will help to relax and reduce spasmic cramps. It is suitable for both nausea and diarrhoea and is suitable for use in pregnancy. I particularly like to use this herb with chamomile for tummy bugs and other causes of nausea and vomiting such as morning sickness, gastritis and travel sickness. 
Adult Dose: Take 20 drops 3-4 times daily added to rehydration tea, chamomile tea or water.
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
This herb has wonderful relaxant qualities and is known as ‘mother of the gut’. It will help to relieve nausea and vomiting and gastro-intestinal irritation with diarrhoea. 
Dose: Take as Hydration tea recipe or take 1tsp flowers in 1 cup of hot water , 3 cups daily, sipped freely throughout the day. Suitable for children and infants. Children under 12 years, half the dose and infants 2-3 tsp 3 times daily. A compress of a strong infusion can also be placed on the abdomen of an affected infant to ease cramping.
Echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia/purpurea)
Echinacea stimulates the immune system to exert an anti-viral effect. It will also exert an effect on bacteria as it stimulates ‘killer’ cells and will act against parasites. This herb is anti-microbial and anti-septic and will also reduce inflammation and aid the removal of toxins from the system. 
Dose: Available in adult and children formulations over the counter, take as directed.
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
I like to use this herb when the initial acute stage of vomiting and diarrhoea has passed. It’s gentle warming action will help to relieve wind and cramps and aid digestion of foods once you started to reintroduce them.
Adult Dose: 1tsp seeds per cup of hot water, taken as a tea 3 times daily (infants: 2-3 tsp 3 times daily).
Ginger (Zingiber officinalis)
This warming herb will help to relieve cramps and will have an anti-inflammatory action on the stomach. It will allay nausea and therefore reduce vomiting. Is active against many parasites which is probably why it has been traditionally eaten with raw fish!
Dose: Take as for Herbal Hydration Tea recipe or infuse a couple of slices in hot water and sip freely. Crystalised ginger can be sucked on to relieve nausea. 
Handy Tip!
Crystalised Ginger is handy to keep on hand when traveling to allay travel sickness or relieve morning sickness.
Peppermint (Mentha piperita)
This herb will also help to relieve nausea and vomiting, relieve wind and reduce spasmodic pain. Grown organically it is also a good source of magnesium and potassium, minerals which will help to balance the stomachs pH and activate digestive enzymes.
This herb can work well as a substitute for chamomile for children who may not be accustomed to the flavour of chamomile but are usually quite familiar with the flavour of mint from a young age.
Adult Dose: 1 tsp dried herb or 3 leaves of fresh herb per cup hot water, sip freely throughout the day or add to rehydration recipe in place of chamomile.
Slippery Elm (Ulmus fulva)
This powder comes from the inner bark of a tree native to north America. It has a soothing effect on the lining of the stomach, it will help allay wind, provide food for the ‘good’ gut bacteria and is of particular use for children with diarrhoea. A very nutritive herb and so is useful to take when recovering from a tummy bug.
Adult Dose: 1/2tsp in hot chamomile tea or water 3 times daily (Half this amount for children under 12years).


The key is to avoid contact with the microbe initially while ensuring that your immune system is in good order just in case you are unfortunate enough to contract an infection.
  1. Avoid contact with infected individuals for the infective period.
  2. If you have suffered a number of recent infections, see a medical herbalist to address underlying digestive problems or immunodeficiency.
  3. Take a probiotic supplement to help replenish the health of the intestinal flora. The tummy bug may result in the destruction of populations of intestinal bacteria which maintain intestinal health. Probiotics are beneficial gut bacteria that the body needs in order to fend off invaders such as the Norovirus. Breastfed babies receive their first beneficial bacteria with their mother's milk. Premature babies and formula fed babies may benefit from an infant formulation of probiotics which can be added to their formula.
  4. Always wash your hands.
  5. Eat properly prepared and stored food. Uncooked meats should be kept separate from cooked and ready to eat food to avoid cross contamination. Vegetables and salads should be thoroughly washed before eating.
  6. Chopping boards, knives and other utensils should be washed   thoroughly in hot soapy water immediately after handling raw meat and poultry.
  7. Take precautions when traveling.
Please note that the advice given in these notes is not intended to be a replacement for professional medical advice and treatment. Always visit a fully qualified Medical Herbalist or G.P. for diagnosis. If you are pregnant, have an existing condition or are currently taking medication consult a medical herbalist to see which herbs are appropriate for you to take.