I get a lot of questions about the difference between the different kinds of “flu.” Sometimes people mistake symptoms of stomach flu for the viral infection we commonly call “the flu,” but they’re not the same. They are caused by different viruses and have different treatments. The easiest way to tell the difference is by the symptoms:
Stomach flu (viral gastroenteritis)
- Stomach cramps
- Muscle aches
- Low-grade fever
Influenza (“the flu”)
- Fever (usually >100.4°F)
- Body aches
- Nasal congestion
- Sore throat
What is the stomach flu?
The stomach flu is an infection that happens when a person’s stomach and intestines (also called the gastrointestinal or GI tract) get infected with a virus. Both adults and children can get viral gastroenteritis. Sometimes, several days of vomiting and diarrhea combined with not being able to keep liquids down can lead to dehydration, or not having enough water in the body. Dehydration can make you have dark yellow urine and feel thirsty, tired, dizzy or confused. Severe dehydration can be life-threatening. Babies, young children and elderly people are more likely to get severe dehydration.
How is stomach flu treated? — Most people do not need specific treatment because symptoms get better on their own. Doctors do not treat viral gastroenteritis with antibiotics because antibiotics treat infections that are caused by bacteria – not viruses.
- To avoid dehydration, drink plenty of fluids. Some fluids are better at preventing dehydration than others.
- Older children and adults can drink low-sugar sports drinks, like G2 Gatorade.
- Babies and young children can drink an oral rehydration solution such as Pedialyte (available in grocery stores and pharmacies).
- Babies who breastfeed can continue to breastfeed.
- Avoid drinking juice or soda as these can make diarrhea worse.
- People with severe dehydration might need treatment in the hospital (receiving fluids through an IV, a thin tube that goes into your vein).
- If you can keep food down, it’s best to eat lean meats, fruits, vegetables and whole-grain breads and cereals.
- Try bland foods like toast, rice, bananas and applesauce first.
- Avoid eating foods with a lot of fat or sugar, which can make symptoms worse.
Call your care provider if these symptoms occur:
- Dehydration (dark yellow urine, thirst, fatigue, dizziness, confusion)
- Diarrhea or vomiting that lasts longer than a few days
- Vomiting up blood
- Bloody diarrhea
- Severe belly pain
- No urination in 6 to 8 hours (during the day)
- Baby or young child hasn’t had a wet diaper for 4 to 6 hours
Can stomach flu be prevented? — Sometimes. Stomach viruses are highly contagious and can spread quickly. People can get the infection if they touch an infected person or a surface with the virus on it and then don’t wash their hands, or if they eat foods or drink liquids with the virus in them.
- Wash your hands with soap and water (long enough to sing “Happy Birthday” twice) after you use the bathroom, change your child’s diaper and before you eat.
- Make sure your baby gets the rotavirus vaccine because rotavirus commonly causes viral gastroenteritis in children. Unfortunately, there are no vaccines for other kinds of viral gastroenteritis.
What is influenza or “the flu”? — Influenza is a viral infection that is sometimes called the “respiratory flu” or “chest flu.” There are different forms of influenza. The most common is the “seasonal” flu. There is also the “swine” flu, which caused a worldwide outbreak in 2009 and 2010, and the bird flu. Bird flu (also known as “avian flu”) is a severe form of the flu that is caused by a type of flu virus that first infected birds.
How is the flu treated? — Most people get over the flu on their own without any lasting problems. Whether or not you see a care provider, you should stay home while you are sick with the flu.
- Stay home, rest and drink plenty of fluids.
- Take acetaminophen (sample brand name: Tylenol) to relieve fever and aches. Do not give aspirin or medicines that contain aspirin to children younger than 18 because it can cause a serious problem called Reye syndrome.
- Do not go to work or school until your fever has been gone for at least 24 hours without taking fever-reducing medicine.
- Always cover your mouth and nose with the inside of your elbow when you cough or sneeze.
Can the flu be treated with medication? — Yes, people with influenza can get medicines called antiviral medicines, like Tamiflu. Tamiflu only works against the chest flu, not the stomach flu or viral gastroenteritis. These medicines can help people avoid some of the problems caused by the flu. Not every person with the flu needs an antiviral medicine, but some people do. Your care provider will decide if you need an antiviral medicine. Antibiotics do not work on the flu. If you decide to see your care provider because of the flu, tell someone right away why you are there. The staff might ask you to wear a mask or to wait someplace where you are less likely to spread your infection.
Is the flu dangerous? — It can be. Some people need to go to the hospital because of the flu, and some people even die from it. We have already lost a child and at least 24 adults in Nebraska to the flu so far this flu season. This is because the flu can cause a serious lung infection called pneumonia. That’s why it’s important to avoid getting the flu in the first place.
Call your care provider if you these symptoms:
- Trouble breathing
- Shortness of breath
- Pain or pressure in your chest
- Sudden dizziness or confusion
Take your child to your care provider if he or she has these symptoms:
- Starts breathing fast or has trouble breathing
- Starts to turn blue or purple
- Is not drinking enough fluids
- Has fever with a rash
- Gets better from the flu but then gets sick again with a fever or cough
- If your child will not wake up or will not interact with you, go straight to the nearest emergency room.
What if I am pregnant? — The flu can be very dangerous for pregnant women because the symptoms of the flu can get worse very quickly. If you are pregnant, it is very important that you get the flu vaccine. You should also avoid taking care of anyone who has the flu. If you are pregnant, call your care provider right away if you might have been near someone with the flu or you think you might be coming down with the flu. The flu can even cause trouble breathing or lead to death of the woman or her baby. That is why it is so important that you talk to your care provider as soon as you notice any of the flu symptoms listed above. You will need an antiviral medicine if you are pregnant and have the flu.
How can I protect myself from the flu? — Getting vaccinated can help prevent you from getting sick. Plus, being vaccinated can help protect those around you from getting sick. If you have been vaccinated but still get the flu, the vaccine can also prevent you from getting severely ill or dying. Other ways to prevent the flu:
- Wash your hands often with soap and water
- Use alcohol hand rubs
- Stay away from people you know are sick
- Get the flu vaccine every year
How is the flu vaccine made? – The strains of flu included in the yearly flu vaccine are based off of the most common strains circulating in the southern hemisphere. That’s because the flu season starts there before moving to our area. It takes months to make a new vaccine and can be difficult to predict exactly how the flu virus is going to change from year to year. Therefore, the vaccine is more effective some years than others.
I got the flu shot and still got the flu, so why bother? Some people think that the flu vaccine doesn’t work because they have known people who got the vaccine and got the sick anyway, but that does not mean the vaccine does not work. Many people who get sick after getting the flu vaccine do not actually have the flu — they have a cold caused by a virus unrelated to the flu virus, so the flu vaccine can’t help with that. Additionally, it takes about 2 weeks for the body to produce an immune response to the vaccine, so it is still possible to get the flu if you come across it in the 2 weeks after your vaccine. That’s why I recommend to get the vaccine early in the flu season, before the virus is circulating. It is important to note that the viral particles in the flu shot are “inactivated” or killed before they are put into the vaccine, so it is impossible to get the flu from the flu vaccine. Some people get a little bit of a low-grade fever or arm redness after the vaccine, which is a sign that the body is generating an immune response, which is good! Even in years when the vaccine is less effective, it still helps prevent serious illness and outbreaks of the flu.