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Sunday, January 14, 2007

Influenza or a “Stomach Flu?”

Sometimes, I’m stickler for vocabulary.

I’m not trying to be prissy, but “The Flu” is one of those medical terms that should be used accurately, and a lot of people misuse it.

“The Flu” is commonly used to refer to two different maladies: influenza and the so-called “stomach flu.”

Influenza is the real flu. It begins suddenly with a high fever, aching joints, and a cough. The cough can persist for weeks.

The influenza virus infects the lungs, and thus influenza is spread by aerosolized droplets. When a person with influenza coughs, they spray miniscule droplets of saliva, diseased lung tissue, and virus into the air. It’s highly infectious, and a whole bunch of people near them will get the flu by inhaling those droplets.

The annual flu shot or other immunization protects you against influenza. The influenza virus mutates easily and regularly, and thus several new strains of the flu float around every year. That’s why you need a flu shot every year.

The “Bird Flu” is a hypothetical variant of influenza. Birds get the flu, too. They have their own strains of the influenza virus. If a bird strain and a human strain infect the same bird, the two viruses can recombine their chromosomes, and thus a very deadly new strain of the flu may emerge.

The so-called “Stomach Flu,” on the other hand, is a group of stomach maladies that is not the flu and is not related to influenza.

This includes classical food poisoning, like from undercooked chicken or eggs, and a whole host of gastrointestinal viruses, like the Norwalk viruses that are sometimes are found on cruise ships, that are spread either through food or, more likely, by the “fecal-oral route.” (Yep, it’s as gross as it sounds.) These viruses are contagious but not by aerosolized droplet spread.

These stomach bugs have symptoms like a low fever, vomiting, stomach cramps, and/or diarrhea. There is no cough. That’s the difference. If you’re not coughing, it’s not the flu.

The flu shot does not protect you from these stomach bugs.

Please use these terms correctly. They are not interchangeable. At the very least, define whether or not you had a “stomach” flu.

TK Kenyon

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