Stomach flu or food poisoning? How to tell the difference
How to know which of these similar ailments you are suffering from
Stomach flu and food poisoning are very similar diseases with symptoms that are easily confused. However, they are produced by very different microorganisms, and involve different types of symptoms, potential complications, and treatment options. While the stomach flu is produced by a virus, food poisoning is caused by bacterial toxins or other contaminants. Both produce multiple gastrointestinal symptoms, and in this article, we will show you how to figure out which disease you have.
While many symptoms are shared between stomach flu and food poisoning, small differences can provide a clue as to which disease you are dealing with:
- Abdominal pain
- Low-grade fever
- Abdominal cramps
- Fever (may be high) and chills
How to tell them apart
The primary key to identifying whether you have a stomach flu or food poisoning is the type of onset of the symptoms. Symptoms from food poisoning generally arise very quickly after ingesting the contaminated food, often within 2 to 6 hours. The symptoms also come on strongly and all together. Conversely, stomach flu symptoms slowly, perhaps even 2 days after infection, and are often progressive, with one symptom following another.
Another difference between these two diseases is the severity of symptoms. Food poisoning often causes explosive diarrhea and severe vomiting, as the body fights desperately to rid itself of the bacterial toxin. In contrast, the viral infection that causes stomach flu produces symptoms that tend to be milder, at least initially.
Since the stomach flu, technically referred to as viral gastroenteritis, is produced by a viral infection, the recommended treatment is different from that of the bacterial infections characteristic of food poisoning.
Stomach flu is caused by a norovirus or rotavirus. Like many viral infections such as the common cold, stomach flu generally resolves itself without significant medical treatment. Proper hydration and electrolyte replacement, along with careful control of food intake, is sufficient in most cases. Antibiotics should not be taken for stomach flu, since viruses are impervious to these medications and you may be creating antibiotic resistance. For information on what to eat when you have a stomach flu, click here (link to what to eat and what not to eat if you have a stomach flu).
Food poisoning is caused by the body’s reaction to toxins usually produced by bacteria ingested from improperly handled foods. Common bacteria that produce food poisoning include E. coli and Salmonella. Again, most cases of food poisoning will resolve themselves of their own accord. Just as symptoms appear faster and stronger than in the stomach flu, they are also usually faster to disappear. However, more severe cases may require antibiotic treatment to kill the bacterial infection. When taking antibiotics, be sure to fulfill the entire prescription provided by your doctor. Failure to do so may cause the disease to relapse, and the surviving bacteria will not be resistant to the antibiotic.
For both the stomach flu and food poisoning, the best treatment is prevention. Both of these diseases can be passed through contaminated foods. Avoid improperly handled foods, undercooked meats and eggs, unwashed fruits and vegetables, foods that have been left out in the air such as mayonnaise and dairy products, and untreated water. In addition, the viruses that produce stomach flu and survive for long periods of time on exposed surfaces such as doorknobs and countertops. Be sure to wash your hands frequently and thoroughly to avoid contamination.