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Which “flu” is it?

Influenza vs. stomach flu

No matter how careful your family may be at washing hands, sanitizing surfaces, and avoiding others who are sick, you may still pick up a nasty germ that leaves members of your household feeling downright terrible.

A lot of us are quick to exclaim “We have the flu at our house!” We post on our favorite social media sites who is ‘winning’ in our household during a wave of sickness: Flu – 3, Kiddos – 0.

But using the “flu” label does not always paint a clear picture of which illness you are dealing with, because the stomach flu is not the same as Influenza A or B. Many people confuse stomach bugs with the influenza (flu) bug.

Stomach Flu

“Stomach flu” is also known as gastroenteritis. Although both the stomach flu and influenza are caused by viruses, the viral genus and species are different for each entity. The virus that causes the majority of stomach flu is the Norovirus.

The “stomach flu” symptoms are generally worse in the beginning few days and improve over time and usually self-resolve in 7-10 days without any medications. The biggest worry with the stomach flu is dehydration due to fluid loss caused by diarrhea and vomiting. It is important to keep hydrated, taking small frequent sips or drinks of water or fluids with electrolytes such as Gatorade or PowerAde.

Gastroenteritis is spread by contact with a sick person or by eating contaminated food or water. As always, it is important to wash your hands to help prevent the spread of the virus.


The viruses that cause influenza are mainly Influenza A and B. While the “stomach flu” causes nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and non-bloody diarrhea, influenza (flu) causes respiratory symptoms such as cough, fever, sore throat, headache and tiredness.

Influenza can be spread to others who are up to six feet away and is spread mainly by droplets made when people with influenza cough, sneeze or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. It is also possible for a person to contract influenza by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth or nose.

Influenza can have complications such as pneumonia, bronchitis, sinus and ear infections, and in extreme cases even hospitalization or death. There are certain populations, such as older people, young children, and people with certain health conditions (such as, but not limited to asthma, diabetes, organ transplants, and compromised immune systems) who are at a higher risk of these complications and should get the influenza vaccine. If you have not received an influenza vaccine, it is not too late to get one to help fend off influenza this season.

In the case of influenza, symptoms start one to four days after the virus enters the body. It is important to know that healthy adults may be able to infect other people before symptoms start and up to 5 to 7 days after becoming ill. Children may pass the virus for longer than 7 days.

At any time if you are having a hard time breathing, have decreased urine output, severe or persistent vomiting, pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen or any other symptom you are concerned about, it is important to see your healthcare provider.

Written by Kelsey Kuylen

Kelsey Kuylen

Kelsey Kuylen, FNP, is a Family Nurse Practitioner at CHI St. Alexius Health Dickinson's medical clinic. A native of Dickinson, Kelsey provides care in walk-in and family practice.

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