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‘The flu’ may not be the flu

Joe Kurland

Influenza, or “the flu” as his friends call him, is a horrible bug. He wipes you out. He gives you a fever and makes your muscles and joints ache. Your head pounds and you just want to crawl into a warm cave and sleep.

There are many other bugs out there that want to be like the flu. Some of them are bad enough that people even use the term “flu” in their names like “the 24-hour flu” or “stomach flu.” Know this: Real flu does not last only 24 hours, and the real flu does not limit itself to your belly.

If you or a loved one is suffering from sudden vomiting, diarrhea and fever but get better within a day or two, that wasn’t influenza. Those symptoms usually are due to bugs that spread through food. And those bugs love this time of year. With family holiday gatherings, school or office parties, and shared meals, there are lots of chances for the bugs to spread and make people sick.


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Some of the infections can come on quickly, such as Staphylococcus aureus infections, that can make you nauseated, vomit or suffer belly cramps and diarrhea in as little as an hour. Other infections can take days. Norovirus, which may show up two days after eating contaminated food, makes you feel miserable with abdominal cramps, vomiting and watery diarrhea. E. coli is another bug that can take as many as eight days or more before you are hit with gas, fever, stomach cramping and even bloody diarrhea.

Fortunately, most people recover quickly from these infections and many don’t need medical care. While you may not feel well enough to eat after infections like those above, it’s important to drink plenty of fluids (water, ginger ale, sports drinks) to prevent dehydration. When you feel well enough to eat, begin slowly and start with easy, bland foods such as toast, oatmeal or crackers. You don’t want to shock your belly with strong flavors, spice or heavy food.


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Things are different with the real flu, which is a respiratory illness. Influenza can come on suddenly, with symptoms often including fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches and fatigue. Some people may experience vomiting and diarrhea, but they are not always present. Influenza infections can be life-threatening and require multiple days in the hospital. Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota has seen a large number of influenza cases over the past several weeks, and many children have needed to stay overnight to help treat their symptoms.

And this is why we have an influenza vaccine: it helps prevent you from getting really sick. Sometimes (like this year) the flu changes (mutates) a bit. This can cause you to get real influenza symptoms even though you got your flu vaccine earlier in the season.
Not fair, right?

Well, we may still have the advantage. The vaccine helps train your body to react to the influenza invader and keep the infection under control. You might feel sick for a week and spend some time doing puzzles in your bed (or warm cave), but the vaccine helps keep you out of the hospital. And good news: It’s still not too late to vaccinate against influenza.

Not every illness is the flu. But if you’re feeling sick and are concerned, it’s a good idea to contact us. Whether it’s a wicked seven-day coughing influenza or 24 hours of bathroom misery from a stomach virus, we’re here for you at Children’s Minnesota.

Joe Kurland is a vaccine specialist and infection preventionist at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota.