Is it Food Poisoning or the Stomach Flu?

Woman with stomach pain sittin on sofa

Painful and unpleasant symptoms that affect the stomach and digestive tract – such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea – can be hard to self-diagnose since they overlap between food poisoning and a stomach bug. But there are ways to distinguish between the two and help you find the best treatment for what you have.

What most people refer to as “the stomach flu” is unrelated to influenza and is properly called gastroenteritis, which is when the stomach and intestines are infected. The infection is usually the result of contracting a virus, although it can also be the result of a bacterial infection. Along with the symptoms affecting the stomach and digestion, gastroenteritis also comes with other, full-body symptoms such as body and head aches, chills, fever, and fatigue. These accompanying symptoms are one of the best ways to identify the stomach flu from food-borne illness, since food poisoning may not come with body aches and lethargy.

In many cases, although not always, food poisoning comes on more suddenly than a stomach virus – sometimes within hours or a day of eating contaminated food. This isn’t a fool-proof way to tell, but a sudden onset of abdominal pain and cramping, diarrhea, and vomiting that starts soon after eating can indicate food poisoning, especially if it affects other people with whom you were eating. The effects of a stomach virus will often come on more gradually than those of food poisoning, with tiredness and aches setting in a day or two before the stomach symptoms. Blood in the stool or diarrhea is also a good indication of food-borne illness, along with severe cramping.

A stomach bug may benefit from certain medications, depending on the cause, but it will generally clear up within a week to ten days with home treatment. Depending on the bacteria that caused it, food poisoning can last anywhere from a few days to a week or more. If you’re unsure which condition you’re suffering from, it’s best to consult a doctor; food poisoning can cause lasting damage or even be fatal if left untreated.

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