Fighting the Flu or Something Else?

Here are key ways to know what you've got, or not

Think you don’t need a flu shot? Many of us gamble on this each year and win. But world health officials suggest there is a risk an infectious disease could someday wipe out a large portion of our population and threaten the global economy — and if anything, it will be the flu.

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“Every year on average, we identify one new pathogen,” Dr. Thomas Frieden, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recently told The Wall Street Journal. “And every day on average, we at CDC start a new investigation that could detect a new pathogen. But frankly, pandemic influenza is what worries us most.”

Related: Flu Season’s Germiest Places

A pandemic may be years away, but this year’s flu bug is already on the move and it is something we need to take seriously. The virus kills, on average, 36,000 people each year in the U.S. Activity remains low at this point, according to the CDC, but cases have cropped up in all but four states across the nation as of Nov. 12. Health officials expect the incidence to pick up significantly in the coming weeks.

How do you know if what you have is the flu — or something else?

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The Flu
The seasonal flu typically does not involve vomiting and diarrhea, although it may in young children. Symptoms include a fever or feeling feverish, chills, a cough, sore throat, muscle or body aches, headaches, and fatigue. The infection is potentially serious for the very young, the very old, and those with chronic illnesses such as asthma, diabetes, and heart disease.

Norovirus is what typically causes stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting — not the flu.

“It’s important to know the difference [because] if the flu is caught early, an antiviral medication can be prescribed to shorten the course of the flu, decrease severity and complications and even decrease transmission to other family members,” said Dr. Tanya Altmann, a pediatrician, best-selling author, and founder of Calabasas Pediatrics, a private practice in Calabasas, California. “Family members can also be given antiviral medication prophylactically to decrease the risk that they catch the flu.”

What many believe is “the flu” is often the norovirus — that’s the virus you often hear causes outbreaks of illness on cruise ships. Norovirus is extremely contagious and tough to kill. You can get it from an infected person, contaminated food or water, or by touching contaminated surfaces, according to the CDC. This is what typically causes someone to have stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting. The CDC estimates about 23 million infections occur each year in the U.S., a quarter of which are food-related. Infection can be very serious for young children and older adults.

There is no specific medicine to treat someone with norovirus — and dehydration is the most common complication. It must  be properly managed or treated.

Related: Salty Foods and Sickly Children

Food Poisoning
If you believe you have the “stomach flu” and it’s not the norovirus, chances are you have food poisoning. Each year, one in six Americans gets sick by consuming contaminated foods or beverages, according to the CDC. There are more than 250 different food-borne diseases to avoid — most are considered infections, caused by a variety of bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Typical symptoms include nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea — and these symptoms usually clear up on their own within three days. Dehydration and food poisoning are the most common complications.

Your best chance of staying healthy is to take the time to get the flu vaccine, avoid close contact with sick people, wash your hands often with soap and water and avoid touching your eyes and nose, and take antiviral drugs if your doctor prescribes them. They can help lessen the symptoms and prevent serious complications.

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