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Cold, Flu, & Cough Health Center

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Is It a Stomach Flu or Influenza?

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Sometimes people mistake symptoms of stomach flu, or gastroenteritis, for the viral infection we commonly call "flu." But they’re not the same.

Stomach flu happens when your stomach and intestines (also called the gastrointestinal or GI tract) are inflamed and irritated. Causes range from bacteria, viruses, and parasites to food reactions and unclean water.

The flu comes with symptoms like fever, congestion, muscle aches, and fatigue. The cause is the influenza virus. More severe cases can lead to life-threatening illnesses like pneumonia.

Antibiotics can treat a bacterial infection that causes stomach flu, but they won’t work against viruses like the ones that cause the flu.

What Are the Symptoms of Stomach Flu?

They can include:

You may also have a fever, headache, and swollen lymph glands, depending on the type of germ that causes it.

In severe cases, days of throwing up and having diarrhea (or both) can cause your body to lose a lot of moisture. If you lose too much, you may need medical attention. Sometimes it can be life threatening. Signs to watch for include:

  • Sunken eyes
  • Lightheadedness
  • Being more thirsty
  • Dry or sticky mouth
  • Lack of normal elasticity of the skin
  • Peeing less
  • Fewer tears

You can avoid it by drinking plenty of liquids. When you can keep food down again, try bland things like toast, rice, bananas, and applesauce first. Go back to a normal diet within 24 hours if you can.

What Causes It?

Many things cause gastroenteritis, including bacteria, viruses, parasites, dairy products, and poor hygiene.

Bacteria that cause gastroenteritis include:

Viruses cause close to half of all gastroenteritis cases in adults and even more in children. Some of them may include:

  • Norovirus or Norwalk-like virus
  • Adenovirus
  • Rotavirus
  • Cytomegalovirus
  • Herpes simplex virus
  • Viral hepatitis

Stomach viruses spread fast because people don’t wash their hands well after using the bathroom or changing a baby's diaper. Wash long enough to sing "Happy Birthday" twice. Many doctors call stomach flu "a family affair" because it’s so highly contagious it can affect every member of a family.

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