We've all had it at one time or another: you wake up in the middle of the night nauseous and cramping and then you experience what comes after.
The culprit? The dreaded stomach flu.
What is the stomach flu?
But wait... What we commonly think of as the "stomach flu" isn't actually the flu at all. The term "stomach flu" is a common term for what is actually called gastroenteritis.
The term "flu" itself is a shortened form of the word influenza which is a specific type of virus. Flu symptoms include body aches and pain, high fever, cough, runny nose or congestion, nausea, and sore throat. The flu only affects the respiratory system (nose, throat, and lungs) and does not affect the stomach/intestinal area at all. (For more on flu symptoms and prevention, read this article.)
What are the symptoms of stomach flu?
Gastroenteritis, or the "stomach flu", is a common term for for a viral intestinal infection. Gastroenteritis symptoms include:
Low grade fever
Occasional muscle or head aches
Nausea and/or vomiting
Abdominal pain and cramping
Watery (non-bloody) diarrhea
The symptoms usually begin within 1-3 days after infection and typically only last for about 1-2 days but can last up to 10 on more rare occasions.
(It is very important to note that if you have bloody diarrhea, you most likely have a much more severe infection that gastroenteritis, and you should seek medical help as soon as possible. It is also important to note that the symptoms of gastroenteritis are very similar to viral diarrhea caused by certain bacteria such as e. coli and salmonella.)
Gastroenteritis is usually self-healing, meaning the body is capable of fighting it off relatively quickly without the aid of medication. Seeing a doctor is not typically necessary for this type of infection. The most important thing you can do during your bout with gastroenteritis is to stay hydrated.
But if you are unable to keep liquids down for 24 hours, see blood in vomit or stool, or your fever goes over 102 F, you should see a doctor as soon as possible.
It is also important to watch for signs of dehydration which is easily caused by vomiting and diarrhea. The signs of dehydration include:
Very little urine of a deep yellow color (or no urination at all)
In infants and children, crying with no tears
What causes the stomach flu?
Gastroenteritis is mostly caused by one of two viruses, the norovirus and the rotovirus.
The norovirus is the one that most typically infects adults, though it can infect children too. It is the number one cause of most food borne illnesses world wide. The norovirus spreads quickly through the contamination of food and water, though person to person infection is possible.
The rotovirus is the one that most typically infects children. Adults often carry the virus when infected, but don't exhibit symptoms. The reason it affects children so heavily is due to how it is spread: children often pick up the virus from objects they place in their mouths and from place their fingers in their mouths after touching a contaminated object. In the United States, there is a vaccine to help prevent infection of the rotovirus, and it seems to be effective.
How to prevent the stomach flu
As with influenza or any other communicable disease, prevention is key. The methods of preventing gastroenteritis and influenza are largely the same:
Wash your hands regularly with soap and water
Use hand sanitizer when washing stations are unavailable
Clean and disinfect hard surfaces
Avoid contact with those that are infected
Get your child vaccinated against the rotovirus
Avoid sharing personal items such as tooth brushes, eating utensils, and drinks
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Source: Mayo Clinic