Ask Your Pharmacist

February 2, 2017
Q:

Everyone in my family had their flu shot this year, but we just dealt with a horrible flu in our house where we all vomited for a couple of days. Was this year’s flu shot not a good match?

A:

Pharmacists often encounter patients who describe having contracted “the flu” when they have actually come down with a different kind of virus that is not influenza. There has been a nasty stomach bug infecting New Brunswick residents over the last several weeks and although many individuals report having come down with the flu, they are actually dealing with the symptoms of a Norovirus.

Norovirus is a group of viruses that cause an acute inflammation of the digestive tract (stomach and intestine) which lead to symptoms such as upset stomach, vomiting, and diarrhea as well as fever and chills. There are over 20 million cases and over two million doctor visits reported annually in North America as a result of these viruses. Norovirus can occur any time of year, but is much more prevalent in the winter months.

Norovirus is highly contagious. It is found in the vomit and diarrhea of infected individuals and people nearby can become infected from swallowing tiny droplets from the air. The virus can also survive for a long time on surfaces such as countertops and sinks if not properly cleaned. A person can become infected by touching one of these surfaces and then putting their fingers in his or her mouth. As such, the virus can become troublesome for those living in close quarters such as nursing homes and cruise ships or those living with a child attending preschool or daycare.

Unlike influenza, there is no vaccine to prevent Norovirus. The most effective way to prevent infection is to stop the virus from spreading. Proper hand washing is the best way to do this. Wash your hands for about 20 seconds with soap and running water after you use the toilet, change diapers or have contact with an infected individual. It is also important to properly disinfect bathrooms used by sick people with a chlorine bleach solution. Use gloves to perform this task.

There is no real treatment for Norovirus. The symptoms normally last one to three days, and the biggest risk to the patient is dehydration. It is a good idea to try to replenish fluids through sources such as sports drinks or broths. Be careful with drinks that contain too much sugar such as pop and fruit juices as they can actually make diarrhea worse. For children, commercially prepared oral rehydration solutions such as pedialyte are an excellent choice.

Similar to Norovirus, influenza affects millions in North America annually and is also highly contagious.  It is transmitted by tiny droplets that are dispersed into the air when an infected individual coughs, sneezes or even talks in close proximity to another person. The main symptoms of influenza include fever, cough, sore throat, body/muscle aches and headaches.  Some people have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is much more common in children than adults. 

Many people refer to gastrointestinal viruses such as Norovirus as the stomach flu.  Given this, it is important for the public to understand the difference between this and actual influenza as it can influence their beliefs towards prevention. As noted in the question that prompted this article, some people believe that their flu shot failed if they contract a “stomach flu” and choose not to vaccinate against influenza in subsequent years. This can put the individual as well as any of their contacts at risk for a true bout of the flu.

Don’t hesitate to ask your pharmacist if you have any questions about your specific symptoms.

Ryan Kennedy (BSc., Doctorate of Pharmacy, MBA) is a pharmacist/owner at Jean Coutu in Saint John. His opinions expressed in this newspaper are published for educational and informational purposes only and are not intended as a diagnosis, treatment or as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Send your questions to AskYourNBPharmacist@gmail.com.