Stomach flu – there is no such thing

Taking a look at the facts and misconceptions surrounding this pesky bug.

You’ve probably heard the term “stomach flu” many times, especially during the winter months. Maybe you’ve even used it yourself to describe the misery of diarrhea and vomiting that many suffer from every year. But did you know that there really is no such thing as the “stomach flu?” The word “flu” is actually short for influenza, which is a virus that affects the respiratory system. Ironically, most people who get influenza pass it off as the common cold, which is also caused by viruses, but is less severe than influenza. Influenza causes very similar symptoms to the common cold, but is often accompanied by fever and body aches, and while there is no cure for influenza or the common cold, there are yearly vaccines that can help prevent the spread of influenza.

Stomach illnesses may be confused with the “flu” because they often, but not always, come with several of the same symptoms – body aches and fever. The main difference is that there are no respiratory symptoms if you have a stomach illness. Another reason for confusion is that some people with influenza, especially children, may experience vomiting as a result of too much mucus reaching the stomach. What is causing that relentless gastrointestinal distress? Most likely a foodborne illness known as Norovirus. There are many viruses and bacteria that could potentially be causing gastroenteritis (the medical term commonly used to describe diarrheal diseases), such as Salmonella and E. coli, but Norovirus is responsible for causing the most U.S cases of stomach illness each year (about 20 million cases). That’s roughly one out of every 15 people. Other names for Norovirus that you may have heard are Noro, Norwalk, the cruise ship flu and winter’s vomit.

The part about Norovirus confusion that is most disturbing is that many people simply pass it off as a “just a stomach bug,” and nothing to worry about. Norovirus is a foodborne illness and is highly contagious, and should not be taken lightly. It can easily be passed person-to-person through many avenues including sharing food and drink with someone who is/has been sick; by eating food contaminated by sick food workers; by touching surfaces that have been contaminated; by cleaning up after a person who has been sick; by wearing clothes or sleeping in beds that have been contaminated and not properly disinfected; by eating shellfish from contaminated water. Maybe you found some of those avenues a little startling, but there’s more.

Norovirus can live on surfaces for up to a month. That means that a doorknob that missed the disinfecting stage of cleanup could possibly make someone else sick two, three or even four weeks later! Another fact is that those who have been sick with Norovirus carry the virus in their feces for several weeks after having their last symptoms. This makes proper handwashing essential to prevent spreading the virus to others. It is also true that people are most contagious while they are experiencing symptoms as well as three days beyond their last symptom. The most important thing to remember is that what you think is “just the stomach flu” is actually a highly contagious foodborne illness, and it should be taken seriously. Michigan State University Extension recommends the following to help prevent the spread of Norovirus:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly (at least 20 seconds) with warm water and soap before and after handling food, after cleaning up after sick people and after using the bathroom.
  • Make sure to clean and disinfect surfaces, clothing and bedding that have come in contact with someone infected with Norovirus. Household bleach is recommended for this. Follow the instructions on the bottle for disinfecting.
  • Isolate sick family members. While this may be hard to do, minimizing the number of surfaces and areas they touch can drastically reduce the spread to others.
  • Never allow sick people to prepare food.
  • Stay home if you are sick. It may be a hardship to miss work or have your kids miss school, but try to stay home at least 48 hours beyond your last symptom as well. This helps with reoperation and the spread of germs.

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