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The Difference Between Stomach Flu and the Flu

Whether you call it the stomach flu or, more precisely, viral gastroenteritis, the highly contagious intestinal infection is no fun. Symptoms include watery diarrhea, stomach pain, vomiting, muscle aches, and mild headache that can last for several miserable days.

Because stomach flu, or gastroenteritis, is commonly referred to as “flu,” it’s easy to confuse it with influenza.

But the two illnesses are not the same.

Here’s what you need to know about stomach flu and gastroenteritis symptoms and how they differ from influenza.

What Is Stomach Flu?

Stomach flu is when your stomach and intestines become inflamed and irritated.

Although the causes of stomach flu range from bacteria and parasites to food reactions and unclean water, close to half of all gastroenteritis cases in adults — and even more in children — are caused by a virus.

For this reason, stomach flu cannot be treated with antibiotics.

Stomach flu usually develops after contact with an infected person or consuming contaminated food or water. Stomach flu and gastroenteritis symptoms often last for three to seven days and sometimes up to 10 days.

The most common form of the stomach flu is norovirus, which causes 19 million to 21 million illnesses each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

What Is Influenza?

While the stomach flu affects the stomach, influenza only affects the respiratory system (nose, throat, and lungs). Symptoms of the flu include fever, muscle aches, sore throat, and cough, and influenza can be prevented with a flu shot. Thankfully, people with the flu usually don’t have gastroenteritis symptoms.

Treating Stomach Flu

When you’re feeling miserable with stomach flu and other gastroenteritis symptoms, the last thing you want to hear is,

You just have to wait it out.

Unfortunately, there’s no cure or treatment for the stomach flu.

There are, however, some things you can do to relieve symptoms:

  • Stay hydrated by taking small sips of clear liquids, such as water or broth.

  • Avoid caffeinated drinks like coffee and black tea, as well as alcohol, which can make symptoms worse.

  • Stay away from foods that contain dairy, fiber, grease, and spices.

If you can’t hold down fluids, gastroenteritis can lead to dehydration.

Symptoms of dehydration include weakness, dizziness upon standing, rapid heart-rate and decreased urination.  

Dehydration can be treated at urgent care centers like GoHealth Urgent Care with IV fluids and anti-nausea medications.  

BUT if you have a fever or severe localized abdominal pain or pain concentrated in one area, you may be sent to the Emergency Department for advanced imaging and lab testing to make sure it’s not something more serious.

Preventing Stomach Flu

Gastroenteritis is highly contagious. If you know it’s going around, the experts at GoHealth Urgent Care recommend taking extra precautions, like washing your hands even more than usual and avoiding close contact with infected people.

Here are some other preventive measures — not just to avoid the stomach flu but to stay healthy in general:

  • Use the dishwasher instead of washing dishes by hand.

  • Use soap and water instead of hand sanitizer. Also, wash your hands for as long as it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice.

  • If you have a sick family member, ask him or her to use one bathroom while the rest of the household uses another.

  • Wipe off shopping cart handles.

  • Clean countertops and surfaces with a disinfectant spray, and wash clothes and bedding regularly.

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