Dealing with the Flu and Stomach Flu


Dealing with the Flu and Stomach Flu
Healthy Living - January 6, 2015
Joan Pellegrini, MD

This is the time of year when norovirus becomes a nuisance. Norovirus is also known as “winter vomiting illness” or “stomach flu”. It causes a 1-2 day illness of vomiting, sometimes diarrhea, cramping, and generally just not feeling well. It is very contagious and is passed from person to person by contamination with stool or vomit. Contamination mostly happens through lack of hand washing. Sick persons can spread the virus from the moment they begin feeling sick and for at least 3 days after illness ends. Therefore, good hand hygiene is still very important even when you are feeling better. 

Norovirus is just one virus that causes a rather intense episode of vomiting and diarrhea. However, at this time of year there are other “GI viruses” floating around that cause similar illness. It does not matter which virus you have since most people do not become very ill with the stomach flu (stomach flu being a generic term to refer to all of the virus-mediated illness that cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea). I consider it more of a nuisance. However, some people may become dehydrated and will benefit from being seen by a doctor who can give them IV fluids and anti nausea medications. Unlike the “real flu” (influenza) there is no medication to treat this or make it less symptomatic. The best treatment is to stay home, get rest, keep up with fluids and try to prevent exposing anyone else. This shall pass quickly. I have seen several students, coworkers, friends and family with this and so it does seem to be making its way around the Bangor area as it does every year about this time. 

Flu (“influenza”) season is also upon us. However, influenza is much more serious. It can be particularly dangerous for the very young and old and those with medical conditions. Every year thousands of people in this country die of flu-related complications. This year appears to be a bit worse than previous years. The vaccine is usually about 50-70% protective but this year it is only protecting about 1/3 of the people because it is not as well matched to the circulating viruses as it has been in other years. Flu season starts in the late Fall and usually peaks in January. It takes about two weeks for the body to make antibodies to the vaccine. So, even if you have not yet had the vaccine, it is not too late to get vaccinated and have some benefits. 

Flu symptoms can often be confused with the common cold. A cold usually starts with a runny nose or sore throat. Fever, severe muscle aches and exhaustion are usually not part of a cold. The flu, on the other hand, usually starts rapidly and often causes a fever. A patient generally feels much worse with the flu. If you do think you have the flu, you may benefit from seeing your doctor and being tested for the flu to see if being prescribed one of the “anti-flu” medications which can the shorten the length of illness. If you are in a high risk group, you may even benefit from close monitoring for the signs of any complications from the flu. 

The EMMC Emergency Room is not seeing a lot of cases of flu yet this season. However, if you plan to travel, you may want to look at the CDC website to research if you are traveling to one of the areas where flu is epidemic this year (