flu or stomach flu
Credit: BigStockPhoto.com

What is the Difference Between the Flu and a “Stomach Flu?”

flu or stomach flu
Credit: BigStockPhoto.com

You’ve probably been hearing about the flu for a while now — especially how important it is to get your flu shot. But maybe you’ve also known friends or co-workers who recently became sick to their stomachs, saying they had a “stomach flu.”

Do you know what a “stomach flu” actually is? Is it really a type of flu at all? Today we’ll briefly explain what each illness is and what the symptoms of each are so you can get a better idea of what you might be suffering from.

What is the Flu?

The flu is the common name for influenza viruses. According the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the flu is a contagious respiratory illness that affects anywhere from 5 – 20% of the U.S. population each year and hospitalizes more than 200,000 patients yearly due to complications.

A “Stomach Flu” is Actually Not the Flu

Sometimes when people have stomach problems, from serious cramping and nausea to vomiting, they say they have the “stomach flu.” But technically, there is no such condition. The flu is a respiratory illness and usually doesn’t affect the digestive system. What people refer to as a “stomach flu” is actually called gastroenteritis. According to WebMD.com, that means there’s an “irritation and inflammation of the stomach and intestines… caused by a virus, bacteria, parasites in spoiled food or unclean water, or another trigger.”

A true flu will actually seem more like a serious and hard-hitting cold than a stomach or other digestive issue. Here are some of the symptoms of each to help you better determine what you really might have so you can treat your illness accordingly until you’re able to visit your doctor for a proper diagnosis.

Symptoms of the Flu

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Dry cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle aches

The CDC also notes that while stomach symptoms may appear, those symptoms are more common among children, and they are “rarely the main symptoms of influenza.” [source]

Symptoms of Gastroenteritis (or the “Stomach Flu”)

Because gastroenteritis can be caused by both viruses and bacteria (among other triggers), symptoms can vary. But according to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC) of the National Institutes of Health, here are some symptoms of viral gastroenteritis. [source]

  • Watery diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Abdominal pain

According the New York Times, bacterial gastroenteritis has similar symptoms but also potential bloody stools and loss of appetite. Bacterial gastroenteritis is also a common result of food poisoning from bacteria in spoiled or undercooked foods. [source]

Credit: BigStockPhoto.com

As you can see, some symptoms of gastroenteritis are shared with influenza viruses like headaches and fevers. The abdominal pain might also seem similar to the muscle aches of a flu, and since being ill in general can make someone feel worn out, it’s possible some people confuse that with the serious exhaustion common to the flu.

If you’re ill for a prolonged period of time, are concerned that you may become seriously dehydrated or that you may be suffering from other complications of either disorder, please seek medical attention right away. It’s never a good idea to simply guess as to what’s wrong with you. Your healthcare professional may be able to prescribe an antiviral or antibiotic medication that can help, or alert you to any further treatment needed.

* Disclaimer. The author is not a medical professional and information is not designed to serve as medical advice. Facts provided in this article are strictly for informational purposes. Please seek the assistance of a qualified healthcare professional if you become ill.

Written by
Jennifer Mattern
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