The Stomach Flu Does Not Exist

Communication is super important to me. I’ve written about it before. Another “medical misunderstanding” happens when people talk about the stomach flu. Prepare yourselves for another soapbox blog post.


First of all, there is no such thing as the stomach flu. Yes, you read that right. The stomach flu does not exist, and here’s why:


“Flu” is a shortened version of the word influenza.


Influenza is a group of respiratory viruses. These viruses attack cells in the respiratory tract only. They do not attack intestinal cells. People with “the flu” have signs and symptoms of upper and/or lower respiratory tract illness: nasal congestion or runny-ness, sore or scratchy throat, and cough.


When the immune system recognizes something that shouldn’t be there, in this case a virus, it mounts an inflammatory response to get rid of the virus. All of the other symptoms of the flu come from inflammation: fever, headache, body aches, fatigue, etc.


Sometimes, kids have diarrhea and vomiting when they get the flu.


Flu infection in the lungs does change the good bacteria in the gut, which can cause diarrhea, but it’s not because the virus infects the intestines. Because, remember? Flu is a respiratory virus. Also, kids make an adult amount of snot, and aren’t as good as adults at getting it out. That snot drains down the back of throat, into the stomach and through the intestines. Snot is irritating all the way through.


Over the counter cough and cold medications can also cause abdominal pain, nausea, and diarrhea. Guaifenesin (think Mucinex) can cause nausea, dextromethorphan (think Delsym) can cause abdominal pain and nausea, and pseudoephedrine (think Sudafed) can cause diarrhea. Also, fructose and sorbitol, the sweeteners in some of these medications, can contribute to diarrhea.


So, now you have the information. Here’s what to say instead of stomach flu:


Gastroenteritis. This word describes an illness that causes nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. It can be viral or bacterial. But the influenza viruses do not cause it. Cases of gastroenteritis often come with fever, body aches, and fatigue, so I can see why it’s associated with influenza.


The bottom line?


It’s easier to work with a pediatric expert if you both are on the same page about what is going on with your sick child. The pediatric providers at KidMed have the time and knowledge to work with you and find the best plan of care.


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