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The ‘Stomach Bug’ Isn’t What You Might Think It Is

The ‘Stomach Bug’ Isn’t What You Might Think It Is

It Happens Each Year

Around this time (between the holidays and March, mostly): people all around us—maybe ourselves included—get sick from the stomach bug, or what’s commonly referred to as “stomach flu.” It can be a miserable 24 to 48 hours or so. Symptoms typically include diarrhea, nausea/vomiting, abdominal pain or cramping and maybe even a smidgen of fever—accompanied by dehydration (tingling in the extremities anyone?) and loads of justifiable self-pity.

Having the stomach bug or stomach flu—it’s correct name is gastroenteritis—can be a dreadful experience. It usually includes frequent mad dashes to the bathroom or, worse, ending up on the bathroom floor next to the toilet or lying on the side of the bed with a bucket on the floor beside the bed and a towel close at hand, and . . . let’s just leave it at that.

Something that might surprise many of you: what’s described here, technically, is NOT “stomach flu.” There is no such thing. The stomach bug, or gastroenteritis, is not a form of influenza. That flu shot you get, or should get, every year? It targets influenza, which is a respiratory virus—it won’t prevent you from getting the stomach bug, which often is caused by a norovirus. Don’t feel bad (no pun intended); the writer of this blog didn’t know this about the flu shot until researching this blog.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that a norovirus annually causes 19 million to 21 million cases of acute gastroenteritis, which involves inflammation of the stomach and/or intestines. It often is found in clusters, affecting large numbers of people who regularly occupy the same space in proximity, such as at a daycare, school or office. At the time of this writing, two school districts within 30 miles of this author had to cancel classes for a day or two because more than 100 teachers (each) were at home sick.

Although there are prescription medications that can alleviate symptoms such as nausea and diarrhea, there is little that can be done with gastroenteritis except to let it run its course while letting your body work to return you to the land of the living. Two things you can try your best to do, although each can be difficult at such a time—get plenty of rest, preferably sleep, and get some fluids down to help stave off dehydration. Something clear, noncaffeinated and nonalcoholic that can help restore electrolytes—or even just ice chips to suck on—can help. Pedialyte comes highly recommended by health experts.

Here are some things you can do to help prevent yourself from getting sick from a norovirus in the first place:

  • Wash your hands frequently—soap and water is considered more effective than a hand sanitizer.
  • As much as you can, steer clear of anyone with cold or flu-like symptoms.
  • Put a moratorium on shaking hands for a while during a known outbreak.
  • Try not to touch your eyes, nose or mouth without cleaning your hands first.
  • Keep a disinfectant handy to wipe off high-traffic surfaces before touching them. Think countertops, faucets, door handles, TV remotes, keyboards, etc.
  • Cover your coughs or sneezes properly, such as with tissues or by turning and coughing or sneezing into your arm or shoulder. Hey, you need to be thinking of others, too.
  • A few other tips from CDC, courtesy of mysouthernhealth.com: wash fruits and vegetables, cook shellfish thoroughly, clean surfaces with bleach-based household cleaner, wash laundry with hot water and dry clothes completely. Also, when sick, don’t prepare food for others.
  • Wear gloves when changing sheets, exchanging towels, emptying buckets, etc. for the sick, especially the kiddoes.

REPEAT: the norovirus is extremely contagious.

A few other key points about gastroenteritis:

  • Heads up: CDC data from recent years shows outbreaks spiking in February and March, per washingtonpost.com.
  • If blood shows up in your diarrhea or vomit, call your doc ASAP. (If you’re as helpless as me when sick, get someone to call for you.)
  • Gastroenteritis symptoms take a day or two to appear once you’ve been infected with the norovirus.
  • Take it slow on the road to recovery, says health.com, once the vomiting and diarrhea stops and you believe you can now hold down food. Don’t rush into eating something big and greasy just because you are starved. There’s always the BRAT diet—bananas, rice (white), applesauce and toast (white bread). This writer’s go-to “magic food” in the recovery stage is cherry Jell-O (instant improvement). No promises, though. To each his or her own.