Can This Be Flu?
Since gastroenteritis is commonly known as stomach flu, and since this is influenza season, people can mistake one illness for the other or believe they are different names for the same illness. They are not. Gastroenteritis is technically not influenza, though it is most often caused by a virus and usually presents with some of the same symptoms in the early stages – headache, body aches, chills, and fever. It is in the lack of respiratory distress symptoms that the two illnesses diverge, that and the continued nausea and diarrhea brought on by gastroenteritis. Nausea may subside to a low level, and vomiting may cease after the first bouts simply because of a lack of contents to regurgitate as the sufferer no longer desires solid food. Diarrhea continues, however, since the sufferer’s inflamed intestines do not absorb liquids as they should.
Typist wearing mask, New York City, October 16, 1918, during the “Spanish flu” influenza pandemic. Wearing a mask would have helped stave off the influenza virus, which is most often inhaled, but done little to protect the wearer from a gastroenteritis virus, which is ingested.
That last part is the most important in understanding how to treat gastroenteritis. Fluid intake becomes even more important than in treating a case of true influenza because while the overall risk of life-threatening complications is less, the risk of life-threatening dehydration is greater. As with any illness affecting them, pregnant women need to carefully monitor their symptoms as well as take special care using medications. In poor areas of the world, where access to clean water may be limited, dehydration is the biggest killer in cases of gastroenteritis. In wealthier areas, even though a sufferer got the infection by ingestion of contaminated food or water, access to cleaner supplies of both after the illness develops makes chances for recovery much greater. The important things to remember in getting well from a bout with this illness which, dreadful as it feels at the time, are that the risks of developing something more serious are lower than with the actual flu virus, and that dehydration needs to be remedied not just by drinking water but by replenishing salts, sugars, and electrolytes in the right combination.