I was at the gym today and an otherwise great instructor who seems to know a lot about health was sharing incorrect information about the flu with the class of about 40 people. She said that she had received several texts from other instructors asking her to cover their classes because they were vomiting. She went on to say that many at first thought it was food poisoning, but it’s spreading like illness, so it’s the flu, not food poisoning. She made a big deal that the flu is here.
That’s only partially right.
There’s a stomach bug going around.
It’s not food poisoning.
But this extreme vomiting is not “the flu”
The flu causes predominantly fever, cough, sore throat, and body aches for many days. It can cause vomiting and diarrhea, but those aren’t usually the predominant symptoms. And the flu doesn’t cause just a few hours of extreme vomiting like we’re seeing these days.
Why do I care if people call this stomach bug “flu”?
The biggest reason I care is that it leads people to make other incorrect assumptions and to get the wrong treatments.
I hear all the time that people had the flu the year they got a flu shot, so they don’t want to get it anymore.
When probed about their illness, it’s usually not consistent with the flu. It was either a cold and cough or a stomach virus.
They need to know that this isn’t the flu. It wouldn’t be prevented with the flu shot. The flu shot has nothing to do with protecting against most cases of vomiting and diarrhea or most upper respiratory tract infections.
Of course there are people who got the flu shot (or FluMist when it was available) who did come down with the flu. They had a positive flu test and symptoms were consistent with the flu. But if they get influenza after the vaccine they tend to have milder symptoms. They tend to not end up in the hospital or dead if they’ve had the vaccine. Yes, even healthy young people can end up very sick from influenza. They can even die. (The FluMist didn’t protect well and was removed from the market due to this.)
We forget about all the times people did get the vaccine and they didn’t catch the flu even with likely exposure. Lack of disease is easy to fail to acknowledge.
We know the flu vaccine is imperfect. But if the majority of people get vaccinated, we can slow the rate of spread and protect us all against influenza most effectively.