Stomach Flu vs. Seasonal Flu: Know the Difference

200214561-001It’s common to hear the term “flu” this time of year. October marks the beginning of flu season, and vaccines are now available at your doctor’s office as well as retailers around town. But as you take steps to protect your family this season, learn the difference between the often confused stomach flu and seasonal flu.

Both the stomach flu (gastroenteritis) and seasonal flu (influenza) are caused by a virus. Peak months for influenza are usually October through March, but you can catch the stomach flu any time of the year. While they share some symptoms like fatigue, muscle aches and fever, they are completely different illnesses.

Avinash Viswanathan, MD, a physician at Memorial Physician Services-Koke Mill who is often referred to as “Dr. Avi,”outlines the differences between the two:

Stomach Flu

  • Symptoms are primarily abdominal, such as vomiting, diarrhea and cramping along with fatigue. Fever is also possible.
  • Various strains can last anywhere from three days up to three weeks.
  • The virus is very contagious, especially among small kids who touch everything and everyone.
  • Vaccines or antibiotics cannot treat or prevent the virus.

Seasonal Flu (Influenza)

  • Symptoms are more respiratory, such as coughing and a sore throat along with muscle aches, fever and fatigue.
  • Usually lasts about a week to 10 days.
  • The virus is very contagious, largely through air particles.
  • If caught within the first 48 hours, antiviral treatments like Tamiflu can prevent symptoms and shorten duration.
  • The flu vaccine is an effective way to prevent the virus

Two common misconceptions about the flu vaccine are you can catch the flu from the shot and that it should protect against the stomach flu. While it’s possible to have a mild reaction after the shot that includes muscle aches, fatigue and a low-grade fever, true influenza symptoms are much more severe. And there is no vaccine that protects against the stomach flu. The only real prevention is through proper hand washing and limiting your exposure to those affected.

However, the seasonal flu can be prevented through the vaccine, and Dr. Avi recommends it to all his patients.

“It’s especially critical for small children, the elderly and pregnant women, who can develop complications, as well as those with compromised immune systems,” Dr. Avi said. “It’s not 100-percent protection, but the risk of contracting the flu is dramatically reduced if you have the vaccine.”

And as with any illness, the best thing to do if you come down with the stomach flu or seasonal flu is to stay home, rest and drink plenty of fluids.

“You should also go to the doctor early for an evaluation,” Dr. Avi said. “Don’t wait four or five days down the road where your exposure is at a higher rate.”