That thing we call the stomach flu? It’s actually not the flu at all. The real name for this kind of illness is “gastroenteritis.” Stomach bugs can be caused by a variety of different viruses that infect and inflames the lining of the intestines.
This stomach virus is often referred to as a flu because they can share a lot of similar symptoms, according to Preeti Parikh, MD, a pediatrician at The Mount Sinai Hospital and chief medical editor for HealthiNation.
“There are many types of viruses that can cause a stomach bug,” says Dr. Parikh, “but the two most common are norovirus and rotavirus.” There’s a rotavirus vaccination for infants to prevent this type of stomach virus, but there is not yet a vaccine for norovirus, which more commonly affects adults. (It’s also known as the cruise ship virus.)
Stomach viruses are highly contagious, and you can catch one in a few different ways, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases:
Not washing your hands after touching a contaminated surface or object, including your sick baby’s diaper
Sharing food or drink with someone who has the virus
Eating contaminated foods, like oysters from contaminated waters (but this is not the same as food poisoning)
Swallowing droplets from an infected person’s sneezes or coughs
Classic signs of the stomach bug include:
Although quite less than pleasant, the stomach flu is usually not a serious threat for most people, and the body can typically overcome a stomach virus on its own within a couple days. The most common complication is dehydration due to loss of fluids in the bathroom. Here’s how to prevent dehydration with a stomach virus.
That said, you’ll want to rule other more serious issues, such as appendicitis. Greenish vomit, constant vomiting and diarrhea, severe stomach pain, and tenderness in the lower right side of your abdomen are clues that your appendix is inflamed and requires immediate medical attention.
For more tips with the stomach virus, here’s how to stomach virus-proof your family.