So, you always thought the stomach flu is influenza. Well, it’s not

Colder weather is here and with it is sure to come coughing, sneezing, runny noses, and sicknesses of all sorts.

When trying to treat an ailment it’s important to be sure what is actually ailing you.

One of the more common mistakes is confusing influenza and the poorly named “stomach flu” — which isn’t actually influenza at all.

Not even close.

Influenza, said Dr. Anhtai Nguyen, chief medical officer for Bon Secours DePaul Medical Center and Bon Secours Maryview Medical Center, is caused by a virus that affects the respiratory system: the nose, the throat, and the lungs.

The stomach flu is actually viral gastroenteritis, which is an intestinal infection marked by watery diarrhea, abdominal cramps, nausea or vomiting, and sometimes a fever.

It can be caused by a few different viruses.

“The most common way to develop viral gastroenteritis – often called stomach flu – is through contact with an infected person or by ingesting contaminated food or water,” he said. “If you’re otherwise healthy, you’ll likely recover without complications.”

But for infants, older adults and people with compromised immune systems, viral gastroenteritis can be deadly.

So it’s important to know the symptoms as well as the treatment.

Influenza on the other hand is caused by the flu virus. A person is exposed when they come into contact with an already infected person, who coughs and sneezes, spreading droplets of the virus into the air or leaving them on surfaces.

Nguyen said the symptoms of influenza can include a high fever, chills, a dry, hacking cough, sore throat, runny or stuff nose, head and body aches, and fatigue. While some adults may develop vomiting or diarrhea, those symptoms are more likely to occur in children.

“If you get influenza, antiviral drugs are a treatment option. Check with your doctor promptly if you are at high risk of serious flu complications and you get flu symptoms.  Your doctor may prescribe antiviral drugs to treat your flu illness,” he said.

Antiviral drugs, if taken soon enough –- usually in the first day or two — can help lessen the symptoms. However, they’re not available over-the-counter, only with a prescription.

Gastroenteritis on the other hand attacks your intestines.

Anhtal Nguyen, MD with Bon Secours, said it's important to know the difference between influenza and the stomach flu (Southside Daily photo/Courtesy of Bon Secours)
Anhtai Nguyen, MD with Bon Secours, said it’s important to know the difference between influenza and the stomach flu (Southside Daily photo/Courtesy of Bon Secours)

“There’s no effective treatment for viral gastroenteritis, so prevention is key,” Nguyen said. “In addition to avoiding food and water that may be contaminated, thorough and frequent hand-washings are your best defense.”

Depending on the cause, viral gastroenteritis symptoms may appear within one to three days after becoming infected and it can range from a mild sickness to a severe one.

Symptoms usually last just a day or two, but occasionally they may persist as long as 10 days.

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