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Is It Food Poisoning or the Stomach Flu?

Is It Food Poisoning or the Stomach Flu?

Do you know how to tell the difference between the stomach flu and food poisoning?

Most people have had the unfortunate experience of food poisoning. People tend to blame their last consumed meal as the cause of infection. However, food poisoning symptoms can actually be mimicked by other gastrointestinal illnesses such as the stomach flu. Symptoms of both illnesses often include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, chills and dizziness due to dehydration. 

There are ways you can distinguish between food poisoning and the stomach flu.

Stomach Flu

“Stomach flu” is a term that many people use to refer to an array of stomach sicknesses. The actual name of the stomach flu is viral gastroenteritis and refers to a variety of viruses that infect the intestinal tract. Stomach flu viruses are different than influenza, the one “true” flu.

Food Poisoning

Unlike the stomach flu viruses, bacteria causes food poisoning from contaminated food. Contamination can occur at any stage of the food preparation process. Cooking food thoroughly is essential in preventing harmful bacteria growth. In some cases, food poisoning is more dangerous than the average stomach flu because it can lead to hospitalization and even death. To prevent food poisoning, food handlers must wash their hands regularly since the main cause of spreading germs is by contaminating food from people who carry the germs.

Distinguishing between the stomach flu and food poisoning is difficult because of their similar symptoms.  However, food poisoning can be determined as the culprit if other people get ill from the same food as you.  This is more difficult to determine if you believe that you became ill from food consumed in a restaurant.  Calling the health department or restaurant to see if there are similar reports of sickness might allow you to determine food poisoning as the cause.

Symptoms can happen right after a person eats the food, or not until days or weeks later. Common symptoms of food poisoning include:

  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Belly pain
  • Diarrhea that can be watery or bloody
  • Fever

Other symptoms can include problems with the nervous system, such as blurry vision or feeling dizzy. But these problems are not as common.

So which one do I have?

Doctors can test your stool and send it to the lab to identify bacteria associated with food poisoning and viruses associated with gastroenteritis. This is not typically done unless you are experiencing severe symptoms or strongly suspect food poisoning as the cause. Treatment for both illnesses is the same and requires lots of fluids and bed rest. 

Is there anything I can do on my own to feel better?

Yes. You can:

  • Drink enough liquids so that your body does not get “dehydrated.” Dehydration is when the body loses too much water.
  • Eat small meals that do not have a lot of fat in them.
  • Rest, if you feel tired.

Should I see a doctor or nurse?

See your doctor or nurse if you:

  • Have severe belly pain
  • Cannot eat or drink
  • Vomit blood or have blood in your bowel movements
  • Have a fever higher than 100.4°F (38°C)

Though most people recover from food poisoning and the stomach flu, they will never actually know which one occurred. The most important thing to do when you think that you have food poisoning or the stomach flu is to drink plenty of fluids and make sure symptoms subside. Always contact your doctor if you believe that symptoms are getting more severe because they might require medical attention.

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