A flu by any other name…

by Matthew D. Sims, M.D. Ph.D., FACP, FIDSA, Director of Infectious Diseases Research, Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak

What is the flu?It’s the most wonderful time of the year… unless you’re one of the many unfortunate adults or children currently home with what’s commonly known as the stomach flu. Vomiting, loose stools and stomach cramps are the main symptoms of the infection and usually last only 24 to 48 hours.

Just what is the stomach flu? Chances are, it probably isn’t what you think. Stomach flu is not a medical term. It’s a term frequently used to describe an infection that causes upset stomach and diarrhea, called gastroenteritis.

When should you see a doctor? What can you do to prevent yourself from getting gastroenteritis?

Gastroenteritis is a highly contagious illness that causes the intestines to become inflamed, leaving its victims with abdominal woes similar to food poisoning. And while we may refer to it as a flu, it’s important to note that it’s not an actual strain of influenza.

Influenza is a respiratory virus that usually presents with fever, respiratory symptoms and body aches. Viruses that cause gastroenteritis – including norovirus, adenovirus and rotavirus – do not typically require medical treatment.

With that said, you should see a doctor if:

  • you don’t get better after three days
  • you become dehydrated
  • you feel confused
  • you have abdominal pain that continues to worsen
  • blood is visible in vomit or stools
  • symptoms are accompanied by a high fever
  • vomiting is preventing you from taking in even water or other hydrating fluids

Hydration is key. This is especially important for the elderly, the very young and those with chronic illnesses. When you vomit or have diarrhea you lose both water and electrolytes and it’s important to replace both.  Oral rehydration drinks for children, such as Pedialyte, are preferred. Sports drinks can be used for adults, but be cautious of your sugar intake, which can worsen diarrhea.

And what can you do to prevent yourself from getting gastroenteritis? Unfortunately, not much. The flu shot does not offer protection against gastroenteritis. Good hygiene can help decrease the spread. But in close quarters, even with the best hand washing, it’s hard to prevent.

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