Although flu season has not yet hit its stride, some doctors are seeing a spike in unrelated stomach viruses this winter.
“It’s been bad for a couple of years for both, quite frankly,” Dr. John Conwell, with WellSpan Family & Pediatric Medicine in Rothsville, said Thursday.
But this is the worst season for the stomach virus in at least five years, he said.
“This time of year, you think mostly of influenza, which is a respiratory infection,” he said. “A lot of people will call any stomach ailment a stomach flu, but that’s a misconception.”
Gastroenteritis is the general term for any number of stomach viruses, Conwell said. A common one is the norovirus, he said, although doctors rarely identify a specific virus because treatment is the same.
Symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting, stomach cramps and nausea, he said. A person with the virus also might have fever, headache and muscle aches.
If you’re lucky, Conwell said, it will be a 24-hour virus and the symptoms will quickly pass. Otherwise, he said, it could linger for three or four days — any longer than that, he said, and the person should see a doctor.
The best treatment is rest and hydration, he said. Anti-nausea medicines can help, either over-the-counter remedies or, if needed, a stronger prescription drug.
The virus can hit anyone, young or old, he added.
The season for the stomach bug largely coincides with flu season, Conwell said — the height of which is January through March.
The bug is more common in winter because cold temperatures allow the germs “to stick around on surfaces a little bit longer,” Aron Hall, an epidemiologist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the Washington Post.
The CDC reports that, on average, the norovirus causes 19 million to 21 million cases of acute gastroenteritis each year.
Early for flu
Danielle Gilmore, director of marketing for Lancaster Regional and Heart of Lancaster Regional medical centers, said both hospitals “are seeing an increase over last year in the number of patients presenting with upper respiratory infections and various stomach flu-like ailments.”
Public health officials say it’s still early in the flu season, although the state Department of Health reported on its website that, as of Dec. 31, the flu virus was “widespread” in Pennsylvania.
There have been nine flu-related deaths in Pennsylvania so far this season, the website states.
The holidays, which bring people together for family gatherings and public events, help to spread the virus. It spreads even more when students return to school in January, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Experts note that flu shots aren’t 100 percent effective because the strain changes annually.
Most Lancaster County schools polled Thursday aren’t seeing a surge in student absences since classes resumed this week.
Tom Strickler, director of operations for Columbia Borough School District, said the district “experienced a severe sickness of students and staff, especially at the elementary level, prior to the holiday break. This week seems to be back to normal.”
Robert Hollister, superintendent for Eastern Lancaster County, also said there was “an uptick in absenteeism the week before the holiday ... but I think the holiday came along at the right time to break that potential spike.”
School District of Lancaster spokeswoman Kelly Burkholder said the city schools “are seeing a lot of upper respiratory issues like nasal congestion combined with stomach issues” this week.