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Influenza vs. ‘Stomach Flu’; Cases of both showing up

Lead Summary

by Gloria Tobias
DPC & EP Coordinator, Countryside Public Health
How many times have you hear others tell you they have the flu? Now what do they mean by that - do they mean influenza or “stomach flu?” 
Both are viruses but the influenza is a respiratory illness with symptoms of coughing, sneezing, fever and body aches.  Stomach flu, as society has called it for years, is gastroenteritis most often caused by a norovirus. Here in Minnesota, areas of the state are experiencing an increase in the number of these two illnesses.
Norovirus is a very contagious virus. You can get it from an infected person, contaminated food or water, or by touching contaminated surfaces.
The virus causes your stomach or intestines or both to get inflamed (acute gastroenteritis). This leads you to have stomach pain, nausea, and diarrhea and to throw up.  When you have a norovirus illness, you can feel extremely ill and throw up or have diarrhea many times a day.
This can lead to dehydration, especially in young children, older adults, and people with other illnesses.  However, most people with the illness get better within one to three days.
Anyone can be infected with norovirus and get sick. Also, you can have norovirus illness many times in your life.
The illness can be serious, especially for young children and older adults.  Norovirus is the most common cause of acute gastroenteritis in the United States. Each year, it causes 19 to 21 million illnesses and contributes to 56,000 to 71,000 hospitalizations and 570 to 800 deaths. Norovirus is also the most common cause of foodborne-disease outbreaks in the United States.
There is no specific medicine to treat people with norovirus illness. The infection cannot be treated with antibiotics because it is a viral (not a bacterial) infection.  You should drink plenty of liquids to replace fluid lost from throwing up and diarrhea. This will help prevent dehydration
Being norovirus is so contagious, the best way to help prevent it is to practice proper hand washing and general cleanliness.   Wash your hands carefully with soap and water, especially after using the toilet and changing diapers, and always before eating, preparing, or handling food.
After throwing up or having diarrhea, immediately clean and disinfect contaminated surfaces. Use a chlorine bleach solution with a concentration of 1,000 to 5,000 ppm (5–25 tablespoons of household bleach [5.25 percent] per gallon of water) or other disinfectants
Noroviruses can be found in your vomit or stool even before you start feeling sick. The virus can stay in your stool for 2 weeks or more after you feel better. So, it is important to continue washing your hands often during this time.  Keep sick infants and children out of areas where food is being handled and prepared.
You should not prepare food for others or provide healthcare while you are sick and for at least 2 to 3 days after you recover. This also applies to sick workers in settings such as schools and daycares where they may expose people to norovirus.
For further information on norovirus or influenza, you may contact Countryside Public Health at 320-843-4546 or consult your medical provider.
The nasal-spray flu vaccine is a vaccine made with live, weakened flu viruses (sometimes called LAIV for "live attenuated influenza vaccine" or FluMist®). This vaccine does not cause the flu. LAIV (FluMist®) is approved for use in healthy* people who are 2 to 49 years old who are not pregnant. (*"Healthy" indicates persons who do not have an underlying medical condition that predisposes them to influenza complications.) The intranasal vaccine ("FluMist") is a quadrivalent, which means the vaccine will protect you from four different types of flu viruses.
The injectable flu shot is an inactivated vaccine (containing killed virus) that is given with a needle, usually in the upper arm. (Please wear attire that allows us to access your upper arm and shoulder.) The flu shot is approved for use in people older than 6 months. Healthy people and people with chronic medical conditions can get the shot. The injectable flu shot offered at the University of Minnesota flu vaccination clinics is a trivalent intramuscular vaccine that will protect you from three different types of flu viruses.
Photo:  The University of Minnesota has advocated the flu shot for its employees and students.

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