The Problem with Stomach Flu

BY David Shultz
BU News Service

There is no such thing as the stomach flu. No doctor has ever diagnosed a patient with it. The Internal Classification of Diseases (ICD), which catalogues every single disease known to man, doesn’t contain a code for it. The stomach flu is a blanket term used by people to describe any number of illnesses. It can describe brief viral infections, food poisoning, or a cold. It’s a catch-all for “I was sick for a day or two.” What it never describes though, is the flu.

The flu, the real flu, is caused by the Influenza virus. If you’ve ever had it, you would remember; most people who get it are sick for more than a week. Common symptoms include fever, body aches, sore throat, head ache, and a dry cough. Most of the time, the real flu does not cause diarrhea or vomiting. If you get the real flu, you’re likely to miss school or work—you’re probably bed ridden. Worst of all, the real flu loves the term “stomach flu.”

The problem with the term stomach flu isn’t just related to its ambiguity. The problem is that the term causes a decreased appreciation for how serious influenza actually is. More specifically, the propagation of the term “stomach flu” makes people less likely to get a flu vaccine. “Oh I had the stomach flu last year, it wasn’t that bad. I don’t need a vaccine.” Furthermore, people who have gotten a flu vaccine will often think their vaccine didn’t work after they get the “stomach flu.” “I’m not getting a flu shot this year! I got one last year and I still got the flu anyway.”

Everybody should get a flu shot. It should be viewed as a civic duty. It’s not about protecting yourself as much as protecting everybody else. There’s a concept called Herd Immunity that describes how if enough of a population is immunized, a disease can’t infect anybody in the population—even the people who aren’t immune to it. The susceptible individuals are shielded by the immunity of the herd because the disease isn’t able to circulate. Using the term “stomach flu” damages our herd immunity. Let’s stop saying it.