Surviving Stomach Flu in Italy

4 Nov

There was a pretty nasty stomach flu going around Italy towards the end of September and most of October. Pretty much everyone I know came down with it for a few days, including my husband. I, on the other hand, managed to sail through without any problems. Until last night… when it decided to rear its ugly head just when I thought it was gone for good. I haven’t had a bad stomach flu for probably like 8-10 years or so—I suppose it was time. Therefore, I bring you today’s post propped up on pillows from my sick bed… my hand placed dramatically against my forehead… OH, WOE IS ME… and what dedication to NaBloPoMo, I might add.

In any case, having the stomach flu made me think about something that I found interesting after I moved here. It seems obvious to say, but I just hadn’t ever thought about it before. The thing is this: remedies for the stomach flu vary not only from country to country, but even from family to family. And when faced with having to use “someone else’s” tried and true remedy once you get sick…giving up your own can be a hard habit to break.

Whenever I got the stomach flu as a kid in the United States, my mom would give me ginger ale, using a straw to blow bubbles in it to force out all the carbonation. To this day I have no idea why that was necessary (can someone explain this to me?) but it was always what she did. I got to sip that, and eat Saltine crackers. Those were always my two companions next to me on the couch as I watched Scooby Doo and waited to puke again. My aunt used to recommend hot tea with lemon and Saltine crackers (I think the crackers are a recurring theme in my family). That was it…and you didn’t dare go near anything greasy, oily, or dairy until you knew you were over it.

Well, come to Italy, and I learn that the never-fail remedy that my husband’s family swears by is a bowl of white rice with a small dollop of olive oil on top.

GASP! Olive oil?! That breaks one of my mom’s cardinal rules—no greasy or oily foods. And frankly, for me the idea of eating a bowl of white rice after having thrown up just doesn’t sit well.

But see, the idea for many Italians I’ve spoken to of having something like Sprite (no ginger ale here in Italy as far as I know) and crackers when they’re sick with a stomach bug… those I’ve talked to just can’t imagine anything but their plate of white rice.

So I guess we get pretty attached to these things, and fortunately Ale went out to get me my Sprite and crackers. I don’t have anything against white rice with olive oil, mind you, but old habits are hard to break, and this is one I just can’t stomach. (I guess bad puns come with my flu as well.)

Anyhoo, now I’m curious: what were your family’s home remedies for the stomach flu? Do you think it’s a cultural thing or a family thing? Do you know of any other stomach flu remedies here in Italy?

PS I’ve also heard that for an upset stomach, here in Italy you drink an espresso with lemon squeezed in it. I can assure you that you won’t catch me doing that anytime soon, but I know people who swear by it.


40 Responses to “Surviving Stomach Flu in Italy”

  1. sognatrice November 4, 2007 at 1:38 pm #

    I think the carbonation thing is just so that you don’t have extra gas floating around in your stomach–my family did the same thing with ginger ale, Sprite, or even flat Coke. It’s something about the syrup, I believe, that’s supposed to be calming. And yes, crackers at my house too. Broth if you could handle it. Sucking on ice cubes too, especially if you had a fever.

    Aren’t the crackers, though, kind of a universal thing for morning sickness? Everyone knows that pregnant women should carry around crackers, right? Maybe Italian don’t 😉

    I’m trying to think of what I’ve heard around here for flu remedies; I suppose I’ve been blessed to not have been around much of the flu…maybe camomile? That seem to be the cure for everything around here.

    I’ve never heard of the rice thing, but I’ll ask P later what they’d do for an upset stomach and get back to you if it’s interesting….

  2. Amanda November 4, 2007 at 1:48 pm #

    Poor you, I hope you feel better soon. You could try mashed potato, eaten from a bowl, in bed and as you recover you can slowly add fish fingers and frozen peas to the menu. In our family this is know as ‘ill food’, my Italian neighbour says she would rather starve than eat this so I guess you have to be English.

  3. Imperatrix November 4, 2007 at 2:03 pm #

    Get well soon. Yes! I remember the saltines and flat ginger ale. We did that too. We also got jello in the deal. I could watch unlimited TV, too. So this would often be eaten in front of things like BattleStar Gallactica (the old version, 😉 ), Star Trek, and that show about people floating around in space on the moon, which got knocked out of its orbit. (It had a lady with brown dots for eyebrows; for the life of me, I can’t remember the name of the show.)

    The rice thing sounds like part of the BRAT diet (banana, rice, applesauce, and toast) that lots of people argue is the best way to get back to health after flu-like stomach upset. Olive oil? Uh, nope.

  4. Sherry November 4, 2007 at 2:27 pm #

    You are so dedicated to be blogging from your sick bed. Your humble readers appreciate it! My family too did the ginger ale & crackers thing. At best we could have toast, but NO butter or jelly. I distinctly remember the ban on all things greasy or oily as well because apparently that would only upset your stomach further. My husband confirms that his American family did the same.

    A little off of topic, but in my husband’s family, when you had a fever, his grandmother would cut potatoes in half and put them against the soles of your feet – she swore by that. Weird, right?

  5. Fr. Jay November 4, 2007 at 2:30 pm #

    So you got sick in Rome? I bet it’s because you weren’t wearing a scarf around your neck after November 1st! In my trips to Rome, I absolutely LOVE how scarfs around the neck will prevent all sorts of maladies (and nothing helps you ‘blend in’ as a native and not appear as a tourist!). Hope you feel better. Make use of the Farmacias, which dispense medication much easier and cheaper tham American doctors!

  6. Shelley, At Home in Rome November 4, 2007 at 2:52 pm #

    Thanks for all your input and ideas! Your responses definitely got me smiling. Luckily I don’t have a fever so I won’t have to worry about putting potatoes on the soles of my feet. I agree, that is a little odd, never have heard of that one… but I am always interested to hear what people think works, because I figure, if it didn’t work they wouldn’t do it. Although sometimes there might be a placebo effect or just an attachment that’s so strong due to tradition that a person keeps doing it because it’s a comforting ritual.

    I’ll have you all know that Ale is cooking me white rice and broth. 😉 Luckily I think the worst of it is over (why is it that it always seems to strike in the middle of the night?) so maybe I can stomach a little something now. Luckily it doesn’t seem to be full-blown flu but just stomach flu. Sigh!

    Fr. Jay: By the way, that is funny… my first year here I got sore throats all the time and all the Italians claimed it was because I didn’t wear a scarf. When it’s cold I have definitely adopted the “more is better” philosophy about winter dressing here. I have a full-on hat, puffy down coat, gloves, etc. etc. and look like the rest of the Italians dressed for the North Pole.

  7. qualcosa di bello November 4, 2007 at 3:13 pm #

    the herb ginger is used for nausea, & i believe that may be where the ginger ale thing comes from. my momma also gave me the flat ginger ale & saltines. i have never really been able to do the crackers, but the ginger ale remains a must-have when i am nauseated. one other “remedy” my momma tried (only once) was peptobismal. she did not like being covered in pink puke, so i never had to endure that one again! (just seeing that pink stuff, even now, makes me feel ill)

  8. qualcosa di bello November 4, 2007 at 3:14 pm #

    ps…hope you’re feeling better soon,,,no matter what remedy!

  9. thomps November 4, 2007 at 3:48 pm #

    Our family remedy was milk toast starting out with just a little butter on the toast and adding more as we felt better. My mom also had a bottle of coke syrup (I have no idea where she got it) and we would also get a teaspoon of that which I loved. Anybody else heard of coke syrup?

  10. Andrea November 4, 2007 at 4:39 pm #

    My mom always made Nona’s famous chicken soup. It was pretty bland so the stomach could handle it, but it had protein, so I wouldn’t get worse as the week went on. My dad also drinks the espresso with lemon. I heard it is a great remedy for headaches as well!

  11. Janie November 4, 2007 at 5:03 pm #

    Feel better Shelley. My mom did the same as yours-ginger ale and saltines and to this day it’s I still want when I’ sick!

  12. Beth November 4, 2007 at 5:03 pm #

    My family always had saltines and ginger ale also. My grandma would always have us eat homemade chicken soup also.

    Now whenever I am sick my husband runs to get the basics of soup, crakers and ginger ale though. Unfort. the soup is not always homemade in our house 😛

  13. enrico November 4, 2007 at 5:10 pm #

    Yep, riso in bianco is THE remedy round here, but as far as I know espresso and lemon is used against hangovers, not flu. Mah!
    For imperatrix: was it “Space 1999”?

  14. Stacy November 4, 2007 at 5:37 pm #

    Yep, it was either ginger ale, sprite or 7up with saltines. Maybe if you were feeling better a piece of dry toast. I know ginger helps settle stomachs – not sure why sprite or 7up works.

    I had that flu last year after 10+ years of not being sick “in that way”. It totally sucked – was miserable. I feel for you. =(

    My Italian has tried to get me to eat the white rice/olive oil too. but I can’t stomach it until a few days after.

    Feel better soon!!

  15. Valerie November 4, 2007 at 7:00 pm #

    Yep, ginger ale or 7-Up, saltine crackers, and chicken broth. Pastina with a little butter and parmigiano if we could handle it. I had a bout of it about 2 weeks ago, but not the throwing up (the caccarella fulminante as a Roman friend put it!) Ick. Then a week of normal cold/flu symptoms. Double Ick. My landlord recommended a shot of vino cotto for either/both ailments. Seems to be the cure-all in these parts.

  16. Sara, Ms. Adventures in Italy November 4, 2007 at 7:32 pm #

    I am a Gatorade and cracker fan myself, though after I had a nasty bug back in April when I couldn’t eat for five days, I also became a fan of the white rice and olive oil (and my Gatorade) and just a smidgin of parmigiano. I hope you’re feeling better!!

  17. Shelley, At Home in Rome November 4, 2007 at 8:16 pm #

    Thanks for all your comments, they are keeping me company while I am stuck in bed. Valerie, the caccarella fulminante had me laughing. That’s what my husband had a few weeks back… no vomiting for him, lucky duck! I got the double whammy but luckily today it seems to have passed and just have the general achy flu feeling and weakness. I hope this is the typical stomach bug that only tends to last for 24-48 hours.

    Maybe I was wrong about the espresso and lemon and it’s more for a headache… I just remember Ale’s cousin telling him once to get that at a bar, and I thought it was because he felt nauseous, and I remember thinking that just the thought of lemon squeezed in espresso made my stomach turn. I’ve never tried it so I can’t really talk, but double bitter just sounded awful.

  18. Shelley, At Home in Rome November 4, 2007 at 8:21 pm #

    One other thing… has anyone been introduced to the magical powers of Geffer (prounounced Jeffer like Jefferson)? I always used to laugh at the name. What the heck is in that stuff? You get it from the pharmacy and it’s a sort of orange-flavored powder they dissolve in water here, but it’s not carbonated. If you’re mildly nauseous it settles your stomach…if it’s worse that that, then after you drink it— just have a bathroom nearby. Had I known it was going to make me throw up I would never have taken it, but I did feel a lot better afterwards (sorry for the gory details). For years I’ve heard people talking about Geffer but I had only taken it once before when I felt car-sick.

    At my house my dad always tried to get me to take Milk of Magnesia or a Pepto Bismol kind of stuff… liquid chalk… totally disgusting.

  19. blacklightblue November 4, 2007 at 8:54 pm #

    Chez nous it was ginger ale (very cold, with ice – I think my mom thought that helped with fever or something) and toast with butter. If you could keep that down, the toast became a toasted salami sandwich. Weird, but I remember it tasting really good once I could eat again. The carbonation is supposedly good for your stomach when upset, so not sure why you’d blow bubbles out. But I think all of the above are old time remedies that don’t really make sense, knowing what we know about nutrition these days. I have found that ginger candies or ginger tea (preferably made from candied ginger slices) works amazingly well for nausea and upset stomach. I haven’t had stomach flu for ages (knocking!), but if I did, I’d probably still go for sparkling mineral water and crackers, and then move to scrambled eggs once I could keep some crackers down. It’s good to have some protein if you’ve just voided your body of all nutrition.

  20. blacklightblue November 4, 2007 at 8:54 pm #

    p.s. Get better soon! : )

  21. Janavi November 4, 2007 at 11:27 pm #

    For us it was either ginger ale or coke syrup-which I don’t think you can get anymore-we used to get it from the soda fountain.Now I eat a lot of bland white starchy foods when my stomach is upset,like potatoes & noodles,& of course crackers.Real ginger is good too & mint tea.

  22. Imperatrix November 4, 2007 at 11:54 pm #

    enrico: Yes! That was it: Space 1999. Ah, it brings back memories 🙂

  23. Maryann@FindingLaDolceVita November 5, 2007 at 1:18 am #

    Flat coke or ginger ale, burndt toast, then later rice in a plain chicken broth 🙂 Those are our traditions. Fell better fast! And rest rest rest.

  24. Gil November 5, 2007 at 4:18 am #

    My family also gave us the flat Coke or ginger ale, etc. My Polish friends got Blackberry Brandy!!!!

  25. Meg November 5, 2007 at 5:31 am #

    We were a ginger ale and saltine house, too. My kids hated ginger ale for a long time, though, so I gave them apple juice with their saltines- the doctor, with the BRAT diet, said clear liquids only until stuff stayed down. I wonder how much of it is just… the ritualized comfort of being fussed over? You can’t really make flu go away faster, and nothing really will stop the course of it once it’s going. I would think some of it is almost a reversion to childhood comforts. And when you’re sick is NOT the time you want to be told to adapt (I had a bad case of bronchitis in a convent in Fiesole many years ago. The nuns fussed over me endlessly, but I was perplexed by what seemed to me the extremely odd things to bring someone who was sick. Apparently what you bring sick people is deeply cultural.).

  26. Meg November 5, 2007 at 5:31 am #

    I was so busy talking about me that I forgot to say: I hope you feel better soon.

  27. nyc/caribbean ragazza November 5, 2007 at 8:52 am #

    I hope you feel better very soon.

    My mom was a pediatric nurse and she was big on the saltines and ginger ale. Unfortunately, she would not let us watch all the TV we wanted. I thought that was very mean. 😦

    p.s. I am not a fan of Milk of Magnesia. Yuck.

  28. Shelley, At Home in Rome November 5, 2007 at 12:09 pm #

    Feeling much better today! Still going to rest up, but luckily it seems to have been just a 24-hr. bug. Grazie a Dio!

  29. Jeff November 5, 2007 at 12:13 pm #

    What the hell, I’m feeling like crap too! Yesterday it hit me and yes I had white rice and olive oil. I wanted something hot. I got through the night ok and I made it to work today but barely. It happened right after I posted my blog on Sunday. Can you catch the stomach flu through the Internet?!!

  30. erin November 5, 2007 at 4:38 pm #

    ok, I have a theory on the blowing out the carbonation thing. Maybe it was to have less gas go into you so in case it decided to come back up, it doesn’t give your stomach the urge to send more than air it’s way.

    lovely thought I know.

    I too had the noodle soup, saltines, and ginger ale growing up!

  31. Michelle November 5, 2007 at 8:10 pm #

    I hope you are feeling better. I always had Sprite/7Up and Saltines. At most, some broth. I’m also anti riso in bianco or pasta in bianco. I don’t like either one even when I’m sick and just trying to get down something bland. Hope you are on the mend!

  32. cheeky November 6, 2007 at 5:13 am #

    Oh dear. I am sending you well wishes for a speedy recovery. I absolutely detest having to vomit so having any kind of flu is torture.
    I was given 7-up as a kid. Anything dry like toast, crackers, etc. I think any bland starch is usually safe but for the life of me I can’t think of where it became “good” to use sugar(soda) as a hydrating remedy. Sugar is such a killer; mind you I’m not saying I never consume any. That would be a big, fat, huge lie. : )

  33. julia f November 6, 2007 at 6:53 am #

    flat coke and zofran

  34. Sestofi November 6, 2007 at 12:50 pm #

    Just my 2 cents:

    Actually both solutions are correct. The Sprite (or other carbonated drink) for some reason offers stomach relief and at least gets some liquids in you to avoid dehydration. The white rice with olive oil settles the stomach and the starch absorbs the excess liquid to help stop diarrhea.

  35. Lorna April 11, 2008 at 7:41 am #

    I’m a British girl living in the Veneto region for the past 18 years. The white rice is a well loved remedy here too – it’s because it is one of the easiest and simplest foods for the body to digest – the olive oil has no other function other than to stop the rice grains from sticking to each other and of course it’s healthier than butter. In England we were always given a boiled egg with a slice of dry toast after a stomach upset. Egg for protein and again , very easy for the body to digest. Regards to all.

  36. Debbie December 26, 2008 at 8:43 pm #

    When I was a girl my Itaian grandma used to make cracker soup out of saltines, butter, and broth. She called it Penada (Penata, Panata, Padatta—I have NO idea how to spell this.) My mother remembers it also. We used to have this wonderful soup whenever we were sick, especially with stomach ailments, and it was always something we could keep down.

    Does anyone know what this is called? And if there’s a recipe out there? I suspect that it may be a recipe that was a little different in “the Old Country” as grandma called it, but like many of her recipes she adapted it to her new home.

  37. Rose P. January 2, 2010 at 9:29 pm #

    All of these suggestions were very helpful. I feel so weak & sick but still hungry. I will try some mashed potatoes. Whenever I was sick, that is what I ate, they stayed down & really soothed my stomach. Thanks for all your input.

  38. Elizabeth January 16, 2010 at 3:27 am #

    Ginger ale and saltines in this house too, though!

  39. PassagetoItaly August 27, 2010 at 6:51 am #

    Whenever anyone in my house suffers from the stomach flu, it’s flat ginger ale, crackers, and toast. I think the carbonation from the soda makes the stomach upset which is why you have to drink it flat. The syrup has a calming effect on the stomach and here in the States you can even buy cola syrup at the pharmacy. The pharmacy I work at special orders it, as it is not a regular over the counter item.

    As for anything coming out the other end, my boyfriend swears by squeezed lemon juice. In my house, anything that is not oily, greasy, or dairy. A plain potato, rice, anything that’s considered dry, should be eaten.

    Also for those with congestion and a bad cough, you should stay away from dairy as it produces more phlegm.

  40. Jackie January 6, 2016 at 2:06 am #

    OMG, thanks for the post. I finally found the answer about Geffer! I just flew back from Milan this morning, and have been experiencing a really bad stomach virus since last night. Since I felt extremely miserable this morning at the airport, I decided to stop by the pharmacy before I boarded the plane back to the US. The pharmacist told me to take 2 tablets of Imodium and 2 packs of Gerrer. I guess my nauseous was a really bad one because 5 minutes after I drank the Gerrer. I threw up uncontrollably while I was lining up for the Italian passport control line…. Good thing the pharmacist gave me a plastic bag for my medicine. What an experience…. I just wish the pharmacist had warned me about Gerrer beforehand….

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