FAIRMONT - The flu is really going around this year, no doubt about it. The question is, which flu?
There is a significant difference between gastroenteritis and influenza, or stomach versus respiratory flu, but many people continue to confuse the two.
"This has been kind of a chronic problem, educating people on this," said Dr. Jeffrey Green, family physician with Mayo Clinic Health System in Fairmont.
The difference is important to point out, in part so a community understands what is happening when a flu outbreak of either type occurs and what symptoms to watch for, but it's important in order to avoid confusion about the effectiveness of influenza vaccinations.
"When we talk about the flu as medical providers, we think stomach vs respiratory," Green said. "Both are caused by viruses."
And both are hitting the public hard, in the Fairmont area and beyond. Just recently, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made the news when she fainted and suffered a concussion from her fall. The culprit was a stomach flu, which can cause severe fatigue due to dehydration.
Green's own family was recently hit with gastroenteritis, the symptoms of which can include cramping, bloating, body aches, low-grade fever, vomiting and diarrhea.
"The biggest risk is dehydration, and those most susceptible are little kids and older folks," Green said. "... The biggest thing is just trying to keep up with the fluid demands of the body, which can be difficult, because one, sometimes we don't feel like taking fluids in because we have an upset tummy, or two, we can't keep it down or it runs right through."
In the Green household, they try to keep their home stocked with rehydration beverages, like Pedialyte, which the doctor swears by.
"It can really make you feel better. It's a good idea for anyone, for not just kids," he said.
Stomach flus typically last one to three days, so people should be wary if their condition continues or worsens, and seek medical attention.
Anyone sick with the stomach flu should also keep in mind the risk they present in spreading the virus to others. Gastroenteritis is quite contagious, and depending on the virus type, it can stay in the system for about 10 days after the symptoms subside.
"Just because you're not throwing up or having diarrhea doesn't mean you're not shedding the virus anymore," Green said.
To avoid getting or spreading gastroenteritis or respiratory influenza, the efforts are much the same: Wash your hands, disinfect counters, don't share drinking glasses ...
There is an extra preventative measure to avoid catching respiratory influenza, which is to get vaccinated. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control is now recommending a flu shot for everyone over the age of 6 months.
"The good news is most of us tend to get over it if we're relatively healthy, but that doesn't mean there aren't [exceptions]. The flu can be serious business," Green said. "Folks at higher risk of complications, including death, are the real young and the real old and people with co-existent medical conditions."
Influenza symptoms can be quite similar to the common cold, except typically more severe. Symptoms can include achiness, fatigue, usually a fever, congestion, sometimes a runny nose, headaches and cough. The only way to know for sure that it is influenza is for a medical professional to perform a nasal swab test.
"Usually it spreads by droplets," Green said.
The doctor recently watched an episode of "Mythbusters" that examined how far mucus spreads with the common cold.
"They looked at sneezing into a hanky, versus covering the mouth with a hand, versus covering a cough with an elbow. The elbow won out," Green said.
Unlike the stomach flu, a respiratory flu can be treated with a prescription medication to reduce the duration of symptoms. Ideally, a person should be treated within the first 48 hours of symptoms for the medication to be most effective.
Usually the influenza season peaks in January and February, so Green advises anyone who has not been immunized to do so.
"We're starting to see an uptick," he said. "Last year's flu season was pretty mild, but this year we've already tested a number of cases that have come through the clinic ... so it's out there. It's been confirmed in our community."