You’re on your second sick day, thinking to yourself, “How can I possibly be sick with the flu, I got my vaccine?” But that pesky stomach bug that’s preventing you from eating anything, and perhaps forcing you into the bathroom more often than you’d like to admit, isn’t actually influenza, it’s gastroenteritis.
“Frequently, the word ‘flu’ is used interchangeably to discuss both influenza and viral gastroenteritis,” says Kara Wollenweber, a certified nurse practitioner with ProMedica Physicians. “But in fact, these are two very different illnesses.”
Wollenweber explains that influenza and stomach flu may appear similar, with patients experiencing symptoms such as fever, muscle aches, headaches, and sometimes vomiting and diarrhea. However, influenza affects your respiratory system, including your nose, throat and lungs, while gastroenteritis goes after your intestines.
Identifying Symptoms of the Stomach Flu
If you have the stomach flu, you’re likely experiencing:
- Sudden onset of diarrhea (five or more liquid stools for longer than 12 hours)
- Vomiting or fever greater than 102 degrees F
- Abdominal pain, body aches or headache
“These symptoms can likely be attributed to gastroenteritis, if no other cause can be identified such as stress, bowel disease or recent use of antibiotics,” Wollenweber says.
Wollenweber warns that symptoms of the stomach flu do not develop until 12 – 48 hours after exposure, and once symptoms appear, they typically resolve in one – three days. You are most contagious when you are actively sick and for two – three days after your symptoms disappear.
How the Stomach Flu Spreads
The most common instigator of the stomach flu is something called a norovirus, which is spread by coming into contact with contaminated surfaces and other carriers of the virus. You can also get the stomach flu by ingesting contaminated food or water.
“The virus spreads easily,” says Wollenweber. “But there are a few things you can do to help prevent others from getting sick.”
Start by keeping a clean home. Wollenweber says that if you, or someone in your house is sick, you should wash your hands frequently and clean all surfaces, including your bed linens.
Additionally, a person with the stomach flu should not prepare meals or share food or drinks with others, as the virus can easily contaminate food and water.
Also, the virus can remain in your stool for up to two weeks after your symptoms go away, so frequent cleaning of bathroom surfaces is important, as well as continued thorough hand washing.
Remember to Drink Plenty of Liquids
Ask any health care professional their advice for braving it through the stomach flu, and they’ll tell you to get some rest and drink plenty of liquids.
“Dehydration is the leading concern for people of all ages who have the norovirus,” warns Wollenweber. “Older adults and small children are especially susceptible and should be monitored closely.“
Symptoms to watch out for include decreased urination, dry mouth and dizziness when standing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends against giving medication to stop diarrhea in children under the age of three. Additionally, medication to stop vomiting or help with nausea should only be given to adults. Since the norovirus is a virus, antibiotics are not beneficial.
But should you visit the doctor’s office if you have the stomach flu?
“An evaluation by your primary care provider should be made if dehydration or suspected dehydration is a concern,” says Wollenweber. “To prevent dehydration or replace fluids, sports drinks and other non-caffeinated drinks may be used for mild dehydration. Optimally, a fluid and electrolyte oral replacement is best. Severe dehydration may require hospitalization and intra-venous fluid replacement.”
For specific guidelines on rehydration, or suspected dehydration, contact you primary care provider. To read more information about viral gastroenteritis, please visit the CDC’s website.