Last flu season in the U.S., there were as many as 49 million estimated cases of influenza, causing around 940,000 hospitalizations and nearly 80,000 deaths. Those numbers might sound daunting, but there are steps you can take to help prevent the flu. To get ready for flu season, we spoke with two Abbott experts to answer the most frequently asked questions.
Jennifer Williams, MPH, a nutrition research scientist specializing in hydration and Dr. Norman Moore, Ph.D., director of scientific affairs and infectious disease, discuss how to prevent stomach flu and influenza (flu), and how to recognize and treat it in the instances when you can't.
Q: What is the flu, and how do the symptoms differ between the stomach flu and influenza?
A: "Influenza is a virus that can cause fever, muscle aches, headaches, coughing, a sore throat and a runny nose," Moore explains. "The stomach flu is also caused by a virus, most notably norovirus, and it results in acute gastroenteritis, or inflammation of the stomach and intestines," adds Williams.
People affected by stomach flu might also suffer from fever, fatigue and headaches, but more notably, nausea, cramping, vomiting and diarrhea. The stomach flu statistics are nearly as staggering as the influenza virus, with 19 to 21 million yearly cases in the U.S., including 1.7 to 1.9 million outpatient visits, and 400,000 emergency visits.
Q: How do the flu and stomach flu spread?
A. "Both types of flu spread through contact from hands since these viruses can live on inanimate objects like doorknobs," says Moore. With influenza, quite a bit can be spread when the patient is coughing. The flu virus disperses quickly and easily in shared spaces like schools, workplaces, restaurants and public transportation. Meanwhile, norovirus is more often spread when people don't wash their hands after using the restroom and then shake hands with another or prepare or share food.
Q: What can you do to help prevent the stomach flu and influenza?
A: "The No. 1 rule is to wash your hands," says Moore. "It might sound basic but washing your hands with soap and warm water for 15-20 seconds several times a day is going to help protect you." It's also important to avoid touching your face often to keep any germs on your hands away from your mouth and nose," says Williams. Moore also suggests getting the influenza shot before the virus spreads into your community. "When you receive the flu shot, you're protecting everyone around you, not just yourself," says Moore. Even if you come in contact with a strain of the flu that isn't completely prevented by the shot, it can still help lessen the severity of the symptoms.
"The flu shot can take two weeks to become effective, so get it sooner rather than later," he cautions. Unfortunately, there is not a vaccine for norovirus."
Q: If diagnosed with the flu or stomach flu, what should you do?
A: First and foremost, if you or a loved one experience influenza-like symptoms, be sure to visit your doctor as soon as possible to be tested. "An anti-viral medication should be given in the first two days of the onset of influenza symptoms. Seeing your doctor at the first sign of symptoms to be tested and treated can help lessen the severity and duration of the illness," Moore advises.
Since the flu is not a bacterial disease, it cannot be fought with an antibiotic. "Taking an antibiotic when you don't need one can cause antibiotic resistance which may create superbugs, and can negatively alter the state of your microbiome," he adds. If you are diagnosed with either the influenza or stomach flu, you should go home and rest, and not return to school or work until 24 hours after your fever breaks or diarrhea and/or vomiting have stopped. "You're most contagious at the very beginning stages of influenza, but you can still pass the virus for five to seven additional days after symptoms start," says Moore.
Q: What can you do to feel better?
A: Another essential part of recovering from either type of flu, according to Williams, is properly hydrating and nourishing your body. She explains that foods with a high-water content, like fruit or vegetables, can help combat dehydration, and, also recommends simple foods with salt, like crackers, and a lean protein like eggs. Avoid high fat or high sugar foods because they're harder to digest and may be taxing on your already weakened body.
Infographic: Electrolytes Explained
"Of course, it's vital to drink enough fluids when recovering from the flu," says Williams, "But high sugar drinks like soda or juice don't contain the electrolytes needed for proper rehydration and might actually make diarrhea worse, especially in people suffering from the stomach flu." Instead, opt for fluids like water, hot or iced tea, coconut water or a rehydration solution like Pedialyte® that provides electrolytes, including sodium, chloride and potassium, and a small amount of glucose.
Plenty of people will come down with flu or stomach flu this year, but with the right prevention techniques, you don't have to be one of them. If you have any concerns about the flu always talk to your healthcare provider.