Winter is prime time for the stomach flu

WASHINGTON —  The stomach flu is more prevalent in the winter months, and local doctors are reminding people to take precautions and know the warning signs.

While outbreaks can occur throughout the year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says almost 80 percent of the cases from one of the most common stomach viruses — the norovirus — happen between November and April.

Millions of Americans deal with the nausea, vomiting and diarrhea that are tell-tale signs of these stomach bugs. And doctors in the D.C. area report a big increase this month in cases involving children and adults.

What we commonly call the stomach flu is not really the flu at all.

“The medical term is gastroenteritis, and it is a common viral illness that typically occurs in the winter,” says Dr. Carolyn O’Conor, a family physician in Rockville, Maryland.

She says influenza is a respiratory disease, while these bugs attack the stomach and intestines. They share a few symptoms, such as body aches, nausea and fever, but a flu shot offers no protection against a virus that hits the gastrointestinal tract.

There is no drug like Tamiflu that can lessen the severity of gastroenteritis.

“There is no specific remedy for it; it is really only symptom relief and fluids,” O’Conor explains, adding, “The main hazard is dehydration.”

The very young and the very old are most at risk, but everyone who comes down with one of these nasty bugs needs to concentrate on replacing not just lost fluids, but lost sodium, potassium and other minerals as well.

In mild to average cases, water is OK. Bottled electrolyte solutions from the drug store — such as Pedialyte — are much better, but sports drinks should be used in moderation, because the mix of sugar and salts they contain is not as effective.

O’Conor says that when you’re on the road to recovery, keep foods light and stay away from anything with lots of fat and sugar. Stick with basic, bland foods, such as bananas, rice, applesauce and toast.

She says there is some evidence that the lactose in dairy products may prolong the illness in children, so it may be a good idea to hold off on milk products. The big exception is babies who are breast-fed. They should not stop.

Diapers from a sick baby can spread the disease, as can soiled clothing and bedding, so handle them with care. It’s also important to remember that these stomach viruses are pretty tough, and can live on household surfaces for days — clean them well and often. And doctors stress that the best means of prevention is still simple hand washing.

Usually, it is possible to just wait out a stomach virus, but O’Conor says there are times when it’s important to seek medical help.

The danger signs include blood in the stool, a persistent fever, severe abdominal pain, dizziness, light-headedness and lack of urination for eight to 12 hours.

“I think then it is absolutely time to call a doctor, or even take yourself somewhere to be seen,” she says.

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