What’s the difference between the flu and a stomach bug?

November 5, 2007 by  

by Ryan Moultray, D.O.
and Judy Harvey, M.D.

I often hear people saying they’ve had “the flu,” but I’ve always thought influenza was fairly rare — and very serious. What’s the difference between the flu and a stomach bug? Also, should my kids get a flu shot?

DR. MOULTRAY SAYS: I’ll admit, I’ve been guilty of telling a parent that their child had a “stomach flu,” but as you’ll see, this is a misnomer.

When we diagnose influenza, we are talking about a respiratory tract infection, whereas when we diagnose the “stomach flu,” more accurately known as gastroenteritis, we’re talking about an intestinal infection. The symptoms of each are actually quite different.

INFLUENZA (the flu): The flu is a common and potentially serious infection. In the U.S, outbreaks of influenza occur in the winter months, for the most part.

We often see large outbreaks of influenza, most commonly among people living in institutionalized settings, or who are exposed to close contact with many other individuals, such as schools, daycare, or long-term care facilities.

Influenza is a highly contagious viral infection, which means antibiotics are useless against it. There are antiviral medicines that can minimize the flu’s symptoms and duration, but they usually are reserved for high-risk patients in whom the infection is caught within the first 24-36 hours. These medicines can be expensive, cause side effects and ultimately may not make much of a difference.

The flu may cause severe cough, muscle aches, headache, fever, shortness of breath, sore throat, and usually makes you feel downright miserable. Very young children may experience nausea, but this is more rare with older children; diarrhea is not a symptom of influenza.

The flu is spread via respiratory transmission — that means coughing, sneezing, eye goop, snot, etc. If you breath it in, or wipe your child’s nose then rub your own eyes/nose/mouth, you likely will contract it.

Serious, sometimes life-threatening infections are more common in very young and elderly people (which is why we recommend the flu shot each fall for people in these age groups).

GASTROENTERITIS (the “stomach flu”): This infection is extremely common, especially among children. In fact, I have a treatment handout to give to people that my nurse puts on the door usually before I’ve even entered the room.

“Gastro” indicates stomach, and “enteritis” indicates intestines, which helps describe the most common symptoms of this infection: Nausea, sometimes vomiting and diarrhea. You often see a fever, muscles aches, stomach cramps and decreased appetite as well.

Many different pathogens (bugs) can cause this type of infection, but most commonly it is caused by a virus (again, antibiotics are powerless against this enemy).

The infection usually lasts 3-7 days, and generally doesn’t need any more treatment than increased fluid intake, BRAT diet (bananas, rice, applesauce and toast) and some Tylenol. If a child is having increasing abdominal pain, signs of dehydration or blood in the stool, I recommend evaluation by their doctor.

These infections are passed usually in a fecal/oral transmission. Yep, that means somebody didn’t wash their hands very well after using the restroom. Beware of that bathroom doorknob!

There is a fairly new vaccine for the most common cause of viral gastroenteritis in children, called rotavirus; the series must be started between 6-12 weeks of life.

As you can see, these are two very common infections, with very different symptoms. Oh, and did I mention before, antibiotics play no role in the treatment of these illnesses.

• Ryan Moultray is father of Will, 3, and Owen, 1. He’s also an osteopathic doctor at Selah Family Medicine.

DR. HARVEY SAYS: Sick children are miserable. There’s just not much a parent can do to make their child feel better. Parents feel helpless. Prevention is the key here.

Influenza vaccines can cut your child’s risk of getting the flu by more than 60 percent.

Gastroenteritis is frequently caused by food poisoning. The food is contaminated either by improper cooking or by dirty hands. Follow recommended guidelines for preparing and storing food and always wash hands before preparing food.

• Judy Harvey is a mother of four; her youngest is a junior at Eisenhower High School. She practices medicine at Family Medicine of Yakima.

ASK THE DOCTORS: Have a question? We’ve got answers! E-mail the doctors at talkback@playdateyakima.com.

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