Stomach Flu vs. Food Poisoning: How to Spot the Difference

Medically reviewed by Dr. Phil Mitchell MD, MS on November 27th, 2019

There’s nothing worse than this scene: You’re relaxing at home on a Sunday afternoon, enjoying the twilight of the weekend, when something starts to feel…off. Your stomach begins to gurgle, a fever starts to heat up your face, and you feel that nauseating twinge in your throat that can only mean one thing: It’s time to high-tail it to the bathroom.

As your symptoms set in, effectively ruining the rest of your Sunday, you may be asking yourself: Was it the french toast at brunch or is this the stomach flu? It’s important to determine the root cause of your symptoms because treatment varies accordingly. Fortunately, we can help. If you find yourself hugging the toilet looking for answers, read on. 

Causes

First, let’s take a look at the possible causes of each type of illness so you can begin to narrow it down.

The Stomach Flu

Whether you call it the “stomach flu,” “stomach bug,” or “stomach virus,” they all mean the same thing—gastroenteritis. The term “stomach flu” can be misleading, however, since gastroenteritis is actually caused by a virus. There are a number of different viruses that can cause the stomach bug, but the most common is the norovirus.

Norovirus causes as many as 21 million cases of the stomach bug per year, most commonly between November and April. It’s very contagious, too; you can catch the bug easily by making contact with an infected person, sharing their drink, or coming into contact with something their stool or vomit has touched, perhaps in your efforts to clean up after them during the course of their illness. 

Food Poisoning 

Food poisoning, also known as foodborne illness, is caused when harmful parasites, bacteria, or viruses contaminate the food you eat. And it’s super common—there are more than 76 million instances of foodborne illness a year. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the top five causes of foodborne illness are:

  • Norovirus
  • Clostridium perfringens
  • Salmonella
  • Staphylococcus aureus (Staph)
  • Campylobacter

Like your steak super rare? Many cases of foodborne illness can be traced to undercooked meat (there’s a reason most restaurant menus contain disclaimers relating to this subject!). Besides meat, however, there are a number of foods that are more susceptible to contamination than others, including:

  • Sprouts
  • Eggs
  • Raw seafood
  • Unpasteurized beverages and cheeses
  • Unwashed fruits and veggies 
  • Contaminated water

Even if you haven’t consumed anything on this list recently, food contamination could still be at the heart of your symptoms. Any food can become contaminated when restaurant workers don’t practice safe hygiene, like washing their hands after using the restroom, and you never know when that might happen—even if you order your steak cooked well done.

Symptoms 

The stomach bug and food poisoning share a lot of the same symptoms, including: 

The main differentiators between the two sets of symptoms are how fast those symptoms come on and how long the illness lasts. 

Foodborne illness can come on within hours of ingesting contaminated food and typically resolves within two days, whereas the stomach bug typically takes one to three days to present symptoms and can last for as many as 10 days. 

In severe cases, food poisoning can also present other symptoms, such as bloody vomit or stool, intense stomach cramps, and even loss of consciousness. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms along with facial weakness, paralysis, trouble breathing, or blurred vision, you should seek medical treatment immediately; these are symptoms of botulism, a rare but very serious form of food poisoning. 

Treatment

Treatment for the stomach bug can often be done at home. Stomach flu treatment typically  includes:

  • Replenishing fluids. Stick to water or electrolyte drinks, and try to avoid overly sugary drinks which don’t do the body any good. 
  • Slowly reintroducing food. Opt for a bland diet including foods like cereal, potatoes, bananas, and yogurt once you feel up to eating again. Skip caffeine, spicy foods, and alcohol until you’re back to 100 percent. 

The stomach bug can lead to severe dehydration, however; if you notice symptoms of dehydration, you should seek prompt medical care. 

Mild cases of food poisoning can usually be treated at home with rest and over-the-counter fever medications, but severe cases often need medical attention. Keep an eye out for these symptoms; if you spot them, you should seek medical help immediately: 

  • Symptoms of botulism or severe dehydration 
  • Blood in your stool
  • Diarrhea that lasts more than three days 
  • Extremely high or unrelenting fever (above 104 F for adults and 102 F or higher for infants/children) 
  • Food poisoning symptoms after a visit to a developing country 

DispatchHealth can Help

If you’re experiencing symptoms of the stomach bug or food poisoning and you’re not sure which illness you’re suffering from, DispatchHealth can help. We provide convenient, in-home medical care to people of all ages. After contacting us, you can expect us at your doorstep within a few hours, geared up with most of the medical equipment you’ll find at the emergency room. We also accept most major forms of insurance, including Medicare and Medicaid, and offer an affordable flat rate for all uninsured patients. If you’re too sick to leave the bathroom and get yourself to the emergency room, don’t fear; we’re ready and waiting to help. And requesting care is easy—simply use our website, give us a call, or download our app to get in touch. 

Sources

DispatchHealth relies only on authoritative sources, including medical associations, research institutions, and peer-reviewed medical studies. 

Sources referenced in this article: 

  1. https://www.cdc.gov/norovirus/trends-outbreaks/burden-US.html
  2. https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/foodborne-germs.html 
  3. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/viral-gastroenteritis/symptoms-causes/syc-20378847 
  4. https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/5/5/99-0502_article 
  5. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/botulism/symptoms-causes/syc-20370262 
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