Do you know the difference between the flu and the stomach flu?
While “stomach flu” is a popular term, it is not a correct medical diagnosis. These are actually two different diagnosis caused by two different types of irritants. The correct term for the stomach flu is gastroenteritis. ‘Gastro’ meaning stomach, ‘enter’ relating to the intestines and ‘itis’ meaning inflammation.
People who are suffering from gastroenteritis, or the stomach flu, will have irritation or inflammation of the stomach and intestines, the gastrointestinal tract. Gastroenteritis can be caused by either virus, bacteria or a parasite and does not necessarily need to be caused by an infectious process. Triggers for gastroenteritis can include lactose intolerance or other allergic reactions to specific food types. (1,2)
On the other hand, the flu is caused by a virus known as influenza. The flu often mimics the same symptoms as a respiratory cold except that it begins much more quickly with symptoms of fatigue, fever and respiratory congestion. Individuals who suffer from an upper respiratory infection, also known as the common cold, may also suffer from a low grade fever; but individuals who are experiencing the flu will generally have a fever greater than 100° Fahrenheit. (3)
There are over 100 different types of viruses that can cause the common cold, yet only influenza virus types A, B and C will cause the flu. However, while there are only three different types of influenza that cause the flu, each of these types are capable of genetic mutation and developing different strains each year. The flu will also lead to more severe or life-threatening illnesses, such as pneumonia, in individuals who are immune suppressed or who have other underlying medical conditions which make their overall health precarious. Individuals who are older, young children, those suffering from AIDS, cancer or other milder chronic conditions such as diabetes or asthma, may suffer more severe affects from having the flu. (3)
Treatment for each of these conditions will vary depending upon the individual’s overall health and the underlying reason for the condition. In other words, in a normal healthy young male or female additional treatment for the flu may not be necessary. Individuals are able to recover from this illness by increasing the amount of fluids that they drink each day, getting plenty of rest and good nutrition. However, individuals who have asthma or cancer may find that they need supportive care that is hospital-based rather than home-based. Within the hospital, physicians and nurses will be able to administer intravenous fluids, oxygen and antibiotics for those who go on to develop pneumonia.
Gastroenteritis, sometimes called the stomach flu, may include a headache, fever and swollen lymph glands depending upon the particular germ that is causing the symptoms. However, the individual will also suffer from abdominal cramping, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Individuals can experience gastroenteritis from food poisoning, inflammatory bowel disease, allergic reactions, parasite infections or viruses and bacteria.
In severe cases the individual will lose a significant amount of body fluid that can result in dehydration. Unfortunately, it does not take the loss of too much fluid in order to induce a medical situation that requires immediate attention of a physician. Signs of dehydration can include lightheadedness, increased thirst, dry sticky mucous membranes, lack of normal elasticity of the skin and decreased output of urine or tears. (4) Individuals who have gastroenteritis may find they are unable to keep water in their stomachs without vomiting or may find they are unable to keep up with their fluid needs because of severe diarrhea.
For the most part, individuals who suffer from gastroenteritis can be treated at home with good supportive care. In common cases, such as viruses or allergic reactions to a particular food, individuals are able to recover nicely from gastroenteritis without significant medical intervention. You can avoid dehydration by sipping clear fluids and gradually introducing a bland diet that includes bananas, rice, applesauce and dry toast. This diet is often referred to as the BRAT diet. Eating bland dry foods makes it easier for the digestive system to accommodate the nutrition and calories and is unlikely to irritate a sensitive gastrointestinal tract.
When physicians or medical personnel are discussing the flu they are referring to the respiratory condition caused by influenza. When referring to the stomach virus medical personnel may call it “stomach flu” or will more correctly call it a gastroenteritis or stomach virus.
The differentiation between these two diagnoses is usually easy to discern. However, some people who suffer from the influenza virus will also have vomiting and diarrhea making the differentiation slightly more challenging. These symptoms are usually rare but may happen when individuals suffer from a normally sensitive stomach and then experience the influenza virus.
So, the next time you tell someone you have the flu be sure to these specific about exactly what illness you really did experience!
(1) Cleveland Clinic: Gastroenteritis
(2) Center for Disease Control and Prevention: Viral Gastroenteritis
(3) KidsHealth.org: What is the Flu?
(4) MayoClinic.com: Dehydration