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Distinguishing the flu from norovirus

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While it seems nearly everyone in Boston is sick or recovering from some kind of ailment, many are wondering what they’ve come down with and how to best manage their symptoms. Do they have the flu or the stomach flu? Is it possible to have both at once?

Dr. Joshua Kosowsky, vice chair and clinical director of Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s emergency department, told me he’s seeing a lot of patients with influenza (the flu) and some with an intestinal bug that’s circulating called norovirus (also known as the “cruise ship” virus).

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How do you tell the difference between the two?

At first blush, it seems fairly simple. The flu is an upper respiratory infection that causes sore throat, chills, body aches, runny nose, and coughing. Norovirus is a gastrointestinal illness that causes diarrhea, vomiting, and nausea. Both can lead to severe dehydration if you don’t drink enough fluids.

Many people who have been infected with this season’s Type A flu strain have also developed gastrointesintal symptoms — vomiting, stomach cramps, mild diarrhea — on top of their cough and runny nose.

Both conditions should be managed by getting plenty of rest, taking over-the-counter pain relievers to reduce fever and aches, and avoiding close contact with others for the first few days.

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