Is it the flu? Or stomach bug?

November 25, 2014 Providence Health Team

About 21 million Americans suffer from the “stomach flu” every year. But what if we suggested there was no such thing as the “stomach flu”?

It’s all a matter of terminology. Influenza, or the flu, is a lung and respiratory infection caused by one of three virus types (A, B or C). The illness can be and usually is severe, lasting 10 days to two weeks.

The nausea, vomiting and diarrhea that is generally called “stomach flu” is gastroenteritis, an inflammation or irritation of the digestive tract. It can be caused by any number of organisms or “bugs”:

  • Viruses such as norovirus and rotavirus transmitted through close personal contact
  • Bacteria such as E. coli, shigella, campylobacter or salmonella usually transmitted through contaminated food
  • Parasites such as giardia or cryptosporidium that can be obtained from contaminated water

Although it’s no fun and may cause a fever of 99-101 as well as diarrhea and vomiting, a stomach illness usually passes on its own within a day or two, leaving only a bit of stomach queasiness for another few days.

Don’t Spread the Virus

The majority of cases are viral. Rotavirus often affects young children; norovirus (or Norwalk-like virus) is common among older children and adults. Other common viruses include adenovirus, calicivirus and astrovirus.

Viral stomach bugs are contagious and can spread quickly through a family, day care center or college dormitory. Norovirus, for example, can be spread through direct personal contact (kissing or shaking hands), sharing food, drink or eating utensils or even touching door knobs or shared computer keyboards.

To avoid spreading the bug, wash your hands thoroughly after going to the toilet or changing a baby’s diaper. Avoid preparing food, sharing drinking glasses, utensils, towels or wash cloths when you are infected.

Managing the Spread of Bacteria

Bacterial infections can also be spread through personal contact but are most commonly associated with food. When large groups are affected, it is usually because they ate the same contaminated food at a picnic, school cafeteria or restaurant.

To reduce the risk of infection:

  • Wash your hands to avoid cross contamination when preparing foods
  • Use one cutting board per task (raw meat and produce should never share a cutting board)
  • Use one utensil per task - Keep all food items away from raw meat. For example, cooked hamburgers should never go back on the same plate you used to carry the uncooked ones.
  • Refrigerate and freeze all food at the right temperature
  • Reheat properly

What To Do?

Most cases of gastroenteritis will pass on their own, usually in a few days. The biggest danger is that the diarrhea and vomiting will lead to dehydration or electrolyte imbalances; so be sure to drink plenty of fluids.

There are medications that can stop diarrhea and may be particularly helpful if you have a long car or plane ride, or an important business meeting. But it’s usually best to let the diarrhea run its course and give your body time to heal.

Eat small meals (you probably won’t feel like eating much anyway) and avoid spicy or difficult to digest food (lettuce is notoriously hard for an empty stomach to digest).

After the first day or two, watch for signs of dehydration:

  • Feeling weak, dizzy or lightheaded
  • Little or no urination
  • Dry mouth and eyes

In most cases, the stomach troubles will pass on their own. However, if after two days you show no signs of improvement you should consult with your doctor.


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