We've all heard about someone being sick with the "stomach flu." But, what is the stomach flu? Is it really a type of flu, or is it something else entirely? And what about influenza – the seasonal flu? To get the facts, we sat down with Norman Edelman, M.D., Senior Scientific Advisor for the American Lung Association, and asked a couple of questions.

Is there such a thing as the "stomach flu?"

What is often called the "stomach flu" is actually acute gastroenteritis symptoms, such as nausea, diarrhea and sometimes associated with general malaise. This is most often an illness caused by viruses that target the gastro-intestinal (GI) track.

Is the "stomach flu" a type of influenza?

Influenza or the flu virus does not ordinarily target the GI track, so the stomach flu is not influenza, but a separate condition. Although gastroenteritis is commonly called the stomach flu, influenza viruses do not cause gastroenteritis.

How is influenza (flu) different?

Influenza, or the flu, is an acute viral infection caused by the influenza virus, which is very communicable and occurs in the flu "season" – late fall, winter and early spring. The influenza virus changes, or mutates, so the "seasonal flu" is different every year, meaning the severity can be different, and an annual vaccine is required.

What are the symptoms of the flu?

The flu is more than just "a bad cold." It's a serious respiratory illness, that's easily spread from person to person, usually when the person with the flu coughs or sneezes. Symptoms of the flu include fever, cough, malaise, aches and pains. Symptoms can range from mild to life threatening. If you have asthma or other lung diseases, you are at higher risk of developing complications from the flu. 

What is the best way to protect yourself, and stop the spread of the flu?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone over the age of 6 months get a flu shot, and I think that's the best advice. The flu shot taken every year is the best, although not perfect, protection. It helps protect you, and helps stop the flu from spreading. During flu season, you should your wash hands frequently, shield coughs and ask other to do so as well. If you are in a group at high risk for complications – which includes chronic illnesses, pregnancy, infants and those older than 65 – try to stay away from people with symptoms of the flu.

When should you get your flu shot?

The seasonal flu vaccine is effective for about six months, which happens to be about the length of the flu season, so I tell people to get vaccinated as soon as it's available. Since flu season often doesn't peak until January or February, I also remind people that it's not too late to get the flu shot, even after the New Year.

You can learn more about the flu and how to protect yourself and your loved ones at Lung.org/influenza.

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