Olympics norovirus – Why the ‘Stomach Flu’ isn’t the flu

The Opening Ceremonies of the Winter Olympics aren’t until tomorrow, but organizers in South Korea already have a big problem.

They have quarantined 1,200 security guards who were quartered in a particular area because 36 of them have gotten sick from a suspected case of norovirus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said norovirus is one of a number of gastrointestinal bugs that can spread quickly and easily, especially in the winter, which is why organizers quarantined so many people, despite a relatively small number of sicknesses.

“We asked them not to be put back into the workforce and they were, are staying in isolation just because of the suspected cases," said one organizer in Pyeongchang.

Maybe you haven’t heard of norovirus, but there’s a chance you’ve felt it at some point, because it’s a common problem. It causes vomiting and diarrhea, and it comes on quickly, lasting a few days.

The reason it’s not more of a household name, though, is because it’s often referred to as the “stomach flu,” which is a potentially problematic misnomer.

“So whether you've got the stomach flu, which is usually a gastrointestinal virus like norovirus, or adenovirus, or rotavirus, or you have a cold, mislabeling it causes all sorts of confusion,” said Nick Bennett, the head of the Infections Diseases and Immunology Department at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center.

To be clear, the “stomach flu” is not the flu. It’s gastroenteritis, which is caused by any one of a number of viruses like norovirus. It lasts 1-3 days, whereas the flu is more serious and longer lasting.

The problem with the misnomer is the chance it brings for people to mistakenly think that the flu is only as bad as gastroenteritis, and will resolve in a couple of days, which in turn can discourage people from getting the flu shot.

“Well it's not even just the stomach flu, when people catch a respiratory virus in the winter, they often blame it on the flu,” Bennett said, “and it often isn`t.”