About 21 million Americans suffer from the “stomach flu” every year. And they probably wouldn’t take kindly to the suggestion that there is no such thing.
It’s all a matter of terminology. Influenza, or the flu, is a lung and respiratory infection caused by one of three virus types (A, B or C). The illness can be, and usually is, severe, lasting 10 days to two weeks.
The nausea, vomiting and diarrhea that is generally called “stomach flu” is actually what doctors know as gastroenteriti — an irritation or inflammation of the stomach and digestive system. It can be caused by any number of organisms or “bugs”: 1) viruses such as norovirus or rotavirus, that can transmitted through close personal contact; 2) bacteria such as E. coli, shigella, campylobacter or salmonella, usually transmitted through contaminated food; or 3) parasites such as giardia or cryptosporidium, that can be obtained from contaminated water.
Although it’s no fun and may cause a fever of 99-101 as well as diarrhea and vomiting, a stomach illness usually passes on its own within a day or two, leaving only a bit of stomach queasiness for another few days.
DON’T SPREAD THE VIRUS: The majority of cases are viral. Rotavirus often affects young children; norovirus (or Norwalk-like virus) is common among older children and adults. Other common viruses include adenovirus, calicivirus and astrovirus.
Viral stomach bugs are contagious and can spread quickly through a family, day care center or college dormitory. Norovirus, for example, can be spread through direct personal contact (kissing or shaking hands), sharing food, drink or eating utensils, or even touching door knobs or shared computer keyboards.
To avoid spreading the bug, wash your hands thoroughly after going to the toilet or changing a baby’s diaper. Avoid preparing food when you are infected or sharing drinking glasses, utensils, towels or wash cloths.
BACTERIAL INFECTIONS can also be spread through personal contact, but most commonly through food. When large groups are affected, it is usually because they ate the same contaminated food — at a picnic, school cafeteria or restaurant.
The contamination may have started much earlier, when the meat or poultry came into contact with bacteria from the intestines of the animal, or when water that was used to grow the produce was contaminated with animal or human waste.
It could also occur because of improper handling and preparation of the food in the processing plant, grocery store, restaurant or home. Again, careful hand washing is crucial, and you should take care in avoiding cross contamination with cutting boards or cooking utensils. Remember to keep anything that touches raw meat away from the cooked product. In other words, don’t put cooked hamburgers back on the plate you used to carry the uncooked ones.
Bacterial infections also can occur because of foods that have not been refrigerated or frozen at the right temperature, or have not been re-heated properly.
PARASITIC GASTROENTERITIS can be severe and long lasting. Both giardia and cryptosporidium come from feces, usually transmitted through swimming and other recreational water activities.
Cryptosporidium is usually acquired through water, and the organism is not easily killed with chlorine bleach. Even one gulp of contaminated water in a pool, lake or hot tub can be enough to cause illness.
Giardia can be acquired through personal contact and is often transmitted from child to child, or child to adult at day cares.
WHAT TO DO? Most cases of gastroenteritis will pass on their own, usually in a few days. The biggest danger is that the diarrhea and vomiting will lead to dehydration or electrolyte imbalances, so be sure to drink plenty of fluids.
There are medications that can stop diarrhea. If you have an important business meeting or are going on a long bus or plane trip, these medications are handy for stemming the tide. But it’s usually better to let the diarrhea run its course and give the body time to heal.
You will soon discover that the only way to stop the diarrhea and vomiting is to eat as little as possible and avoid spicy or difficult-to-digest foods. After the first day or two, it’s important to watch for signs of dehydration: feeling weak, dizzy or lightheaded; little or no urination; dry mouth and eyes. Dehydration is serious business — sometimes even fatal — so don’t delay seeking medical help.
In most cases, the stomach troubles pass on their own, leaving only a nasty memory.
Rupp is a certified information and referral specialist on aging for NODA Area Agency on Aging. Contact her at 237-2236.