Is It Influenza or Viral Gastroenteritis?

If you want to know what you can do for the stomach flu discomfort, it's important to first understand the difference between influenza and viral gastroenteritis. Stomach flu is another name commonly used for gastroenteritis.

Many people mistakenly think that influenza and gastroenteritis are the same, but they are very different.  It's common to hear someone complain about having the stomach flu when in reality, they have influenza or vice versa.

Feeling Sick? It Might be Stomach Flu

Naseau or fever can be early symptoms of the stomach flu
Credit: Image by stevekrh19 under royalty free license via SXC

What's the Difference Between Influenza and Gastroenteritis?

The viruses which cause gastroenteritis attack the gastrointestinal tract (GI tract) and cause various symptoms such as:

  • Chills or sweating
  • Diarrhea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Stomach cramps
  • Vomiting

Gastroenteritis is most commonly caused by rotaviruses or novoviruses but it can also be caused by astro viruses or enteric adenoviruses. Gastroenteritis is the number one cause of severe diarrhea in individuals.

On the other hand, the influenza viruses attack the respiratory system and cause symptoms like coughing and congestion, fever and muscle pain.

How Does the Flu Spread?

Foods, beverages, eating utensils and even the hands can be the transmission vehicles for stomach flu viruses. Touching contaminated surfaces such as kitchen countertops or toilet handles or contaminated bodily fluids or excrement can also spread the viruses from one person to another. People usually get the stomach flu from close contact with an infected person or by eating or drinking contaminated food or beverages.

Rotaviruses and novoviruses, the "usual suspects" as the cause of gastroenteritis, are typically transmitted by poor hand hygiene practices according to the Mayo Clinic. Following the steps for proper hand washing is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of stomach flu and protect yourself and your family.

What to Do When You Get the Stomach Flu

It's important to know when you should consult with your healthcare professional to decide if you have influenza or gastroenteritis so you can follow the proper treatment regimen.

Take infants and young children with stomach flu to a doctor if you see any of the following warning signs:

  • Fever of 102 degrees Fahrenheit (38.9 degrees Celsius) or higher
  • Bloody diarrhea or constant vomiting
  • Dehydration and/or lethargy

Warning signs for adults included but are not limited to:

  • Fever of 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius) or higher
  • Vomiting that lasts for more than two days or bloody stools
  • Inability to keep liquids down for longer than 24 hours
  • Dehydration

Excessive thirst or dry mouth, deep yellow urine color, inability to urinate or reduced urine flow,  and dizziness or weakness are red flags of dehydration.

How to Help the Stomach Flu

Since antibiotics are not effective against the stomach flu virus, your healthcare professional will probably recommend palliative care. In plain English, he or she will suggest a variety of things to lessen the severity of the symptoms and make you feel more comfortable until you recover.

Stomach flu is typically self-limiting; most people experience the early symptoms of the flu and feel uncomfortable for several days or even as long as 10 days. In addition to the early signs of flu - vomiting or diarrhea - they may experience a low-grade fever.  While most people feel uncomfortable during the course of the stomach flu, it is usually not life-threatening as long as the individuals stay hydrated.

The Mayo Clinic cites dehydration as one of the major complications of stomach flu.  That's why it is so  important to rehydrate the person to help the body get back into balance as quickly as possible and replace the missing fluids and electrolytes.  Infants and young children should be given oral rehydration solutions (ORS), while older children and adults should drink sports beverages.

Other palliative steps include (but are not limited to)

  • Eating a bland diet
  • Sipping herbal teas to combat nausea
  • Using an appropriate over the counter medication to reduce any fevers
  • Drink two to four ounces of liquid every hour or half hour.
  • Rest
  • Avoiding trigger foods and beverages such as fruit juices or soda, gelatins and broths.

What is the Best Food for Stomach Virus?

Lowering the stress on the GI tract is the goal of following a bland diet when you are suffering from the stomach flu.  The best foods to eat are:

  • Bread
  • Cereal
  • Bananas
  • Potatoes
  • Yogurt

Which Populations Are At Highest Risk?

The risk factors are higher for infants and younger children (because of their immature immune systems,) and people with compromised immune systems such as cancer patients who are receiving chemotherapy treatments.

Groups of people who live, work or fellowship in close contact - school or college students or members of religious or secular organizations - are at risk because of the constant close contact which provides an excellent breeding ground for the spread of gastroenteritis viruses.

Finally, elderly people, especially those in nursing homes or assisted living faculties are at risk because their immune systems may not work as effectively as they did when these people were in better health.

Is a Stomach Virus Contagious?

Yes, these stomach viruses are contagious, but the incubation time varies depending on the specific virus which is causing the gastroenteritis. In general, children tend to be contagious for a longer period than adults do.

  • Novovirus: The incubation period for the flu starts from the time the person feels sick. The contagious period can be as short as 3 days to as long as two weeks.
  • Rotavirus: Contagion is possible even before the affected person exhibits symptoms and can last up to two weeks after the patient recovers.

Why Didn't the Flu Shot Protect Me?

The flu shots which are available annually contain vaccines that are effective on the influenza virus. At the time of this writing, there is no vaccine on the market to prevent gastroenteritis in adults.

Two vaccines are available for infants: RotaTeq and Rotarix.  According to the Centers for Disease Control, these vaccines are given in the first year of a child's life in conjunction with other childhood vaccines.

There are conflicting schools of thought on the safety and efficacy of vaccines. Parents, guardians and caregivers of infants and young children may want to educate themselves with all the available facts on this topic so they can make an informed decision.

Learning how to prevent the stomach flu becomes easy once the causative factors and preventive methods are known. Good hand hygiene is the key to lowering the risk of contracting or spreading gastroenteritis.  While the stomach flu makes most people feel bad for a short period, most recover with no complications.