This time of year, we hear a lot of people talking about flu, stomach flu and other upper respiratory illnesses. First, stomach flu isn’t the flu - we’re not sure how it got that label. It’s actually a stomach and intestinal infection called gastroenteritis. What’s the difference between flu and gastroenteritis? Gastroenteritis affects your body below the waistline. Influenza, flu, is above the waistline.

A sick womanWith gastroenteritis, the worst part is the first 12-24 hours, with symptoms lasting up to 5 days.

“You usually spend the first 12 hours vomiting,” says Cheryl Gardner, Student Health Center nurse practitioner. “As the virus moves through your body, you experience nausea, vomiting and/or diarrhea.”

The biggest concern with this virus is the possibility of dehydration. If you haven’t urinated within an 8-hour period, kept down fluids for 24 hours or feel faint (dehydration symptoms), you need to seek medical help.

Flu, short for influenza, is a respiratory illness with symptoms that include cough, congestion, sore throat, body aches, often high fever and profound fatigue. It rarely causes stomach problems and it comes on very suddenly.

“I’ve had patients say they were just fine one moment and the next moment they felt like they were hit by a truck,” Gardner says. “They tell me how badly their skin aches and how even moving their eyes hurts.” Gardner says the worst of it lasts 5-7 days, but the worn-out, tired feeling can last up to two weeks. She says you can ask your medical provider within the first 48 hours if taking an antiviral (i.e. Tamiflu) is appropriate for you. And there is the cost to consider.

Antivirals are expensive. A 5-day course can cost at least $100, Consumer Reports says.

“Patients need to be aware that antivirals may provide some relief, but they won’t cure your illness,” Gardner says. “They can potentially reduce your illness’ severity and duration by 20 hours, however they may not decrease complications associated with flu, such as pneumonia.”

Typically antivirals are given to patients who fall into a high-risk category such as those with asthma, diabetes – and others who are at a higher risk for developing pneumonia or other complications. The common side effects of this medication are nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and headache.

Both illnesses are highly contagious, so hand washing is a must. Flu is spread through droplets, so covering your cough and sneezes reduces infection transmission.