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Norovirus hits at peak of flu season

Illnesses not the same, health officials stress

Flu season is at its peak, but another contagious virus, norovirus, has hit the area, and the county health departments are urging people to know the difference and take precautions against the illnesses.

Norovirus is a contagious virus, sometimes referred to as “stomach flu,” that causes inflammation of the stomach or intestines or both. Symptoms include stomach cramping, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Other symptoms include a low-grade fever, body aches and headache.

People affected by norovirus often feel very ill and easily can become dehydrated if they are not careful. Young children and older people are especially vulnerable to dehydration.

Most people recover from norovirus within a few days.

Influenza also is a contagious virus, but is a respiratory illness that infects the nose, throat and lungs, not the stomach. Symptoms of the flu include a fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headache and fatigue.

“It’s so frustrating for those of us in public health, when people get what’s come to be known as the stomach flu, and they say, ‘I have the flu. I got the flu shot, but I still got the flu,’” said Cathy Ferguson, administrator of the Lee County Health Department. “And we have to say, ‘No, it’s not the flu, it’s gastroenteritis.’ “

“We just really want people to understand that they’re not the same.”

The seasonal flu has affected many people in the area since it arrived in November, but norovirus has cropped up in the last several weeks.

“It’s in the schools – there are a lot of kids out with nausea, vomiting and diarrhea – and it’s gone through some of the nursing homes, too,” said Beth Fiorini, administrator of the Whiteside County Health Department.

The main precaution against the seasonal flu is to get a flu shot, which still are available at the county health departments, doctors’ offices and many drugstores.

But the main precaution against norovirus is to wash your hands, especially after using the bathroom and before handling, preparing or eating food.

The seasonal flu shot does not protect against norovirus or other gastrointestinal illnesses – only respiratory illnesses.

Households dealing with norovirus should take care to clean and disinfect surfaces with bleach-based cleaners or a bleach and water mixture. Soiled clothing and bedding should be washed immediately.

Both influenza and norovirus typically run their courses – influenza within 1 to 2 weeks and norovirus within 1 to 3 days – but those who experience complications should see a doctor.

Complications of the flu include pneumonia, ear infections, sinus infections, dehydration, and worsening of chronic medical conditions.

Complications of norovirus include dehydration.

“If you have to think about whether or not to go to the doctor ... you probably should go,” Fiorini said.

“Anybody with an underlying condition, or anyone real young or a bit older ... should be much more concerned and see a doctor,” Ferguson added.

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