Diagnose Yourself: Norovirus or the Flu?

As the flu wanes, the norovirus is picking up where it left off. Here's how to tell the difference.

SickWhether you’ve got norovirus or the flu, chances are you’re feeling pretty lousy. Photo via Shutterstock

If you get sick this winter, it’s easy to automatically assume it’s the flu, especially after all the hysteria. But as the flu wanes, another illness is flaring up around the country: the norovirus. Though the two often get confused, Dr. Josh Kosowsky, vice chair and clinical director at Brigham and Women’s Hospital emergency department and author of When Doctors Don’t Listen: How to Avoid Misdiagnoses and Unnecessary Tests, says the two viruses are actually quite different.

“The norovirus is a virus that is responsible for a particularly severe and contagious type of gastroenteritis, and gastroenteritis is what people commonly call the stomach flu,” Kosowsky says. “It’s not at all related to the flu, but it’s contagious like the flu and it spreads in the wintertime around the same time as the flu season, so it can get confused.”

Kosowsky explains that since norovirus affects the gastrointestinal tract and the flu affects the respiratory system, the two viruses have very distinct symptoms. Those suffering from the flu will experience sore throat, coughing, and sneezing, while norovirus brings on nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea. The only symptomatic overlap, he said, is in nonspecific symptoms like lack of energy and appetite, body aches, and head aches.

Kosowsky says that the norovirus can be “fairly debilitating” in the short term and it’s possible to get it at the same as the flu (not fair, we know). The disease is passed along through the gastrointestinal system and is extremely contagious, he explains, and it can be spread simply by touching people or objects that have viral particles on them. Luckily, though, prevention is pretty easy. “It’s good old hygiene—it’s about hand washing” he says. “Be particularly careful about touching your mouth if your hands have not been recently washed, because it is spread via the oral route.”

Too late for prevention? Kosowsky says there’s no real reason to worry, since the illness almost always resolves itself. The key, he stresses, is to stay hydrated, even if it feels like you can’t keep anything down. “Your GI [gastrointestinal] tract is going to be inflamed, so you’re going to be losing fluid,” he explains. “But whether or not you drink you’re going to lose that fluid, so it’s important to continue to take fluid, to keep up with that.”