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Viral Gastroenteritis and the Common Cold versus Influenza

The Madison County Health Department has received many inquiries regarding the occurrence of “flu” in our area.  With many viruses being labeled as “flu” we wanted to inform you of what is the difference in viral gastroenteritis, the common cold, and influenza.  

Viral Gastroenteritis is an infection caused by a variety of viruses which results in vomiting and/or diarrhea.  It is often called the “stomach flu,” although it is not caused by the influenza viruses.  The main symptoms of viral gastroenteritis are watery diarrhea and vomiting.  The affected person may also have headache, fever, and abdominal cramps (stomach ache).  In general the symptoms begin 1 to 2 days following infection with a virus that causes gastroenteritis and may last for 1 to 10 days, depending on which virus causes the illness.  Viral gastroenteritis is contagious.  The virus that causes gastroenteritis is spread through close contact with infected persons.  The most important treatment of viral gastroenteritis in children and adults is to prevent severe loss of fluids (dehydration).  Contact your physician for diagnosis and recommendations should symptoms become worse.  Most at risk for complications are small children, older adults and those with chronic health conditions.

The common cold is a common cause of upper respiratory tract illness.  This includes sore throat, headache, cough and nasal congestion.  These symptoms can lead to lower respiratory tract disease especially in children, older adults and those with chronic health conditions.  Over the counter “cold” medications can help ease the symptoms.  The common cold is contagious.  The virus that causes a cold is spread through close contact with infected persons.  Although the common cold is a virus, it can also lead to secondary infections such as sinusitis, bronchitis, ear infections and pneumonia.  Should your symptoms become worse, consult your physician.

Influenza is a highly contagious viral respiratory illness that occurs primarily during the winter months in our area.  Influenza is vaccine preventable.  The symptoms of influenza  are primarily upper respiratory, but also include high fever, body aches with complications including bacterial pneumonia, dehydration, and worsening of chronic medical conditions, such as congestive heart failure, asthma or diabetes.  Children may get sinus problems and ear infections as complications from the flu.  Influenza should be treated by your physician.  

Influenza vaccine is available in the fall of each year.  The vaccine is only effective for one year’s strain and must be renewed each year for maximum protection.  Your body must build immunities to influenza from the vaccine, which will take about two weeks.  During this process you may have influenza like symptoms of low grade fever and mild body aches.  You may also have soreness around the vaccination site.  The vaccine will not give you the flu.  

Mom’s recommendations are still the best protection against viruses.  Always wash your hands, eat a well balanced diet, get plenty of rest, and do not eat or drink after others and never give aspirin to children under 20 years of age unless instructed by your physician.

For more information on Influenza virus, Gastroenteritis, or the common cold, please contact your physician, the Madison County Health Department (783-2747) or visit the Centers for Disease Control web site at

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