Despite its name, the “stomach flu” actually isn’t “the flu” at all. The flu is seasonal influenza – a respiratory infection caused by one of many influenza viruses. The flu shot provides you with an inactivated version of what is expected to be the most common influenza viruses that season so that your body starts to make antibodies to fight off the virus before it even encounters the flu. This can prevent you from getting the flu or make symptoms less severe. It’s still possible to get the flu after you’ve had a flu shot because there are so many different strains. The strain you get may not be the exact strains in this year’s flu shot. But even then, having had the flu shot offers some protection, leading to less severe symptoms and a faster recovery.
The accurate name for the “stomach flu” is viral gastroenteritis, and it’s caused by a completely different group of viruses. Actually many different types of viruses can cause gastroenteritis, the most common are noroviruses and rotaviruses. Because they are not caused by influenza, the seasonal flu shot will not protect you from the “stomach flu.” Unfortunately, there isn’t currently a vaccine for the viruses that cause “stomach flu.”
Despite that, flu shots are still your best protection from getting seasonal flu and are recommended for anyone over 6 months old, including pregnant women. Women who get the vaccine during pregnancy pass antibodies to their babies and actually helps protects newborns after birth.
Most physician practices have supplies of flu vaccines and vaccination is 100% covered by most insurance plans. (If you are not sure of your coverage, call the customer number on the back of your insurance ID card to find out.) You can also walk in to any HCA Midwest Health Walk-In Clinic or CareNow Urgent Care Centers for a flu shot. It’s not too late, flu season can run through May!
The seasonal flu and “stomach flu” do have some things in common. Both can:
- Come on suddenly and severely
- Include a high fever
- Lead to dehydration
- Cause dangerous complications, especially to young children, adults over 65 or those with compromised immune systems
- Spread easily from person to person
- Be more common in the winter months, when people stay indoors more and can more easily pass viruses to others
- Be prevented with frequent hand-washing and cleaning of common surfaces
Of course, you may not know what virus is causing your symptoms (or if it’s a virus at all). That’s why it’s important to touch base with your doctor, especially if symptoms are severe, have continued more than a few days or have worsened.
Most flu symptoms (even stomach flu) can be safely treated at home, but seek immediate medical attention for any of the following:
- Fever, vomiting or any severe symptoms in children under 3 months old
- Difficulty breathing
- Chest pain or pressure
- Dizziness or fainting
- High fever (> 103°F in adults, > 102°F in kids over 3 months)
- Severe vomiting or diarrhea that doesn’t go away after 4-6 hours
If you are not sure whether you should head to the doctor, urgent care or ER (or you just have a health question), Nurses On-Call can help. Call 1-800-386-9355 to talk to a registered nurse 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – a free service of HCA Midwest Health.