The flu and the stomach flu are often used interchangeably. The symptoms of each condition are very different, but the common term “flu” can be misleading.
In reality, they’re two completely different conditions. The flu, or influenza, is a condition that leads to symptoms of fever, sore throat, body aches, etc., and rarely causes stomach problems. The “stomach flu”, however, presents symptoms of nausea, diarrhea and vomiting. The proper term for the stomach flu is gastroenteritis, an infection of the stomach and intestines.
There are a few common, noticeable symptoms that accompany gastroenteritis including:
- Watery diarrhea
- Vomiting and nausea
- Stomach pain or cramps
- Fever or headache
- Dehydration and signs of dehydration: dry skin or mouth, extreme thirst or lightheadedness
Dehydration is a greater risk for children, who can become dehydrated more quickly than adults. If your child is showing other signs of gastroenteritis, look carefully for symptoms of dry skin or mouth that signal dehydration, and check with your doctor before you give them any medicine.
There are several different causes of gastroenteritis:
- Rotavirus: This is the most common cause of diarrhea in small children.
- Norovirus: The norovirus is the most common cause of major gastroenteritis and foodborne illness in the United States.
- Bacteria: E. coli, salmonella, shigella or campylobacter bacteria are frequent bacterial causes of gastroenteritis, but are less common than cases caused by a virus.
- Parasites: Parasites are another less common cause that are found in contaminated water.
- Heavy metals in drinking water such as arsenic and lead.
- Acidic foods (citrus and tomatoes).
- Certain medications like antibiotics, laxatives and antacids.
- Toxins in certain types of seafood.
These pathogens are spread in various ways, including:
- Contaminated food or water sources
- Contact with another person who has gastroenteritis
- Unwashed hands after using the restroom or changing a baby’s diaper
Because no cure exists for gastroenteritis, treatment for the condition aims to ease symptoms. Recommended treatment methods include:
- Increase fluids: Dehydration is often among the biggest risks of gastroenteritis, especially in children. Increase your water intake, and also make sure you are drinking fluids that contain electrolytes. Important minerals are flushed out of the body during bouts of vomiting or diarrhea and electrolytes help replenish these minerals. Staying away from fluids like milk or high-acid drinks like orange juice is also recommended.
- Slowly introduce food: Slowly introduce food to either yourself or your child once liquids can be kept down. Focus on foods that won’t irritate the stomach such as bread, yogurt, bananas, rice, potatoes and toast. Avoid acidic, fried or spicy foods during this time.
- Avoid over-the-counter medication: Unless you’re instructed otherwise by your family doctor, medications usually aren’t the best treatment option for gastroenteritis. Many antibiotics or pain relievers can actually make symptoms worse. The only exception here is in cases of fever, where a small dose of ibuprofen or acetaminophen can be taken.
Most cases of gastroenteritis clear up after a week to 10 days using these treatment methods. If your child has gastroenteritis and exhibits any of the following, it’s important to visit your doctor as soon as possible:
- Signs of dehydration: dry mouth, no tears when crying or not urinating enough
- Fever over 102 degrees Fahrenheit
- Crankiness and tiredness, beyond the usual
- For babies, the soft spot on top of the head might be sunken in
- Bloody, pus-filled or dark stools
- Previous conditions like diabetes
There are several things you can do to help protect yourself or your child from gastroenteritis. Some of the best tactics:
- Hand-washing: Research has indicated that 40 percent of diarrhea cases can be prevented by good hand-washing. Use both soap and water, and scrub thoroughly. Doing this diligently after each time you’ve used the bathroom or changed a diaper, or before you’re about to eat, is the best way to prevent a stomach virus.
- Hand sanitizer: If you aren’t near a sink, hand sanitizer can temporarily help keep hands clean. However, it’s not a permanent substitute for soap and water.
- Wash all fruits and vegetables before they’re eaten, and cook meat all the way through to kill bacteria. Wipe down all cooking or food surfaces after each time they’re used, and wipe down any surfaces an infected person touches.
- Vaccines: Get your children the proper rotavirus vaccines. Most children get the vaccine at around age 2.
Most cases of gastroenteritis clear up over time and with the right treatment. If you or your child are exhibiting symptoms of gastroenteritis, call your doctor. He or she can help guide your treatment.
Revere Health Orem Family Medicine is devoted to comprehensive healthcare for patients of all ages. Our commitment is to provide thorough and timely health care for the entire family throughout all stages of life.
“The Truth About Stomach Flu.” WebMD. http://www.webmd.com/children/features/the-truth-about-stomach-flu#1
“Gastroenteritis.” WebMD. http://www.webmd.com/digestive-disorders/gastroenteritis#1
“Diarrhea and the Stomach Flu.” WebMD. http://www.webmd.com/digestive-disorders/diarrhea-stomach-flu?page=2