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Flu, Stomach Flu, or a Cold?

I had dinner with my favorite group of mom friends the other night, and one of them asked me an interesting question.

The 6 of us met years ago in a mom’s group and have been friends ever since. One of the moms is a flight attendant and gives great advice about traveling with young kids. One is a professor who teaches early childhood development and is our go-to person for behavioral issues. I’m, of course, the one they ask about anything medical.

My friend noticed I had a bad cough and asked, “Do you have the flu?” and then quickly added, “What exactly is the flu anyway?”

This is, actually, a very good question. Influenza is not a cold. And while we do shorten its name to “flu,” it’s not the same as what you may hear called the “stomach flu” – which isn’t flu at all. Confusing? I get that – let me see if I can clear things up a bit.

Both the flu and a cold are respiratory illnesses caused by viruses. Influenza, or flu, are terms we use to describe a serious viral illness. It usually starts very quickly, causing:

  • High fevers
  • Body aches
  • Cough
  • Congestion
  • Sometimes diarrhea and vomiting, especially in young kids

People feel really miserable with the flu! It typically lasts longer than a cold and is much more intense. The flu can also cause you to miss an entire week of school or work. It puts thousands of previously healthy kids in the hospital each year.

Colds are milder and don’t last as long – your child may have a:

  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • Cough

Usually, though, your child won’t have body aches and a high fever, as with flu.

And that other illness causing intense vomiting and diarrhea? It’s really called “viral gastroenteritis.” It’s fine to call it a “stomach bug” but to call it the flu is confusing.

Why? As awful as they are, stomach bugs last just a day or 2 and most kids get better quite quickly; few are hospitalized or have serious complications. On the other hand, the real flu – influenza – isn’t just a bad cold. But it’s also not the virus that causes a day of bad vomiting and diarrhea.

And while there’s no vaccine for the common cold or stomach viruses, there is one for the flu. So if people think flu is the same as an easy-to-resolve cold or stomach bug – they won’t always accept that life-saving influenza vaccine.

So my answer to my friend? Nope, I don’t have the flu – just a cold. But, I’ll be getting my flu shot in a month because I sure don’t want to get the flu.

Find more resources for parents

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
Influenza (Flu)

American Academy of Pediatrics:
Surviving the Stomach Bug: Truths & Tips for Parents

My Doctor Online:
Cold and Flu

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