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You might be sick, but it’s not necessarily the flu

Photo: lantzilla via Flickr

In every office space and classroom, empty seats are a clear indicator of the viruses spreading this winter. There are plenty of people out with the flu, but it seems plenty of others have the “stomach flu.”

The term “stomach flu” is a misnomer. It has become popular, referring to a variety of gastrointestinal viruses, including gastroenteritis, norovirus, and more. However, these illnesses are not related to influenza, and would be more appropriately nicknamed a “stomach bug.”

Influenza is a respiratory illness. Characteristic symptoms include coughing, aches, fever and fatigue.

“Generally, someone with the flu just feels like they’ve been hit by a truck,” explains Michael Osterholm, Ph.D., MPH, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP). “Flu makes you feel pretty horrible, but it rarely involves diarrhea or vomiting.”

On the other hand, gastroenteritis and related illnesses generally involve nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain and a low grade fever.

Gastroenteritis is most commonly related to viral infections, but is also tied to bacteria, parasites, or food-borne illnesses. One of the big culprits this year is noroviruses.  This can be transmitted through contaminated foods, direct contact with or exposure to someone infected, or touching objects contaminated with a norovirus.

Noroviruses spread quickly and easily. If someone in your house has been sick, it’s a good idea to thoroughly clean bathrooms and surfaces like countertops.


Treatment for gastroenteritis

Gastroenteritis usually lasts around 48 hours, and can be treated at home. Here are a few good tips to ensure a healthy recovery:


  1. Be sure to get plenty of fluids. Even through the vomiting, it’s important to drink clear liquids. Start with small amounts to discourage more vomiting or diarrhea. Other good options include: jello, popsicles, sports drinks or Pedialyte.
  2. To treat any aches and pains, use Tylenol, not aspirin. It’s a little better on the stomach.
  3. A soft, bland diet will help ease the path back to solid foods. Many physicians recommend the BRAT diet: bananas, rice, apples, toast.

If symptoms are severe, the diarrhea turns bloody, or fluids can’t be tolerated at all, it’s important to seek medical attention.

One last thing to remember: because gastroenteritis isn’t a form of flu, the flu vaccine won’t protect against it.

“The flu vaccine is designed to combat strains of influenza. It won’t impact gastrointestinal viruses or bacteria either way,” said Osterholm.

For more information on flu, HealthTalk has plenty to share:

Flu vaccine effectiveness is in question

Is the newly approved vaccine the game changer we need?

There’s a need for new influenza vaccines


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