When you start experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms like stomach cramps, nausea, and vomiting, it’s not always easy to tell whether you’re developing the stomach flu or battling food poisoning. The two ailments often have very similar symptoms. But it’s important to know how to tell whether you have food poisoning or stomach flu, because the viruses that cause stomach flu are often very contagious and can pose a serious threat to the very young or the very old. Plus, knowing which illness you’re dealing with can help you treat it more effectively.
Food Poisoning and Stomach Flu Have Different Causes
The stomach flu isn’t related to the regular flu. The regular flu causes respiratory symptoms, while the stomach flu affects the GI tract. In the United States, the stomach flu is usually caused by norovirus, an easily-spread virus that infects up to 21 million Americans each year, hospitalizing tens of thousands and killing up to 800. Another cause of stomach flu is rotavirus, which causes diarrhea and is most common in young children.
Food poisoning, as the name suggests, occurs when you eat contaminated food. Usually, the food has been contaminated with bacteria, viruses, or parasites at some point during the production process. Raw foods, undercooked meat and eggs, and foods that have been left out for longer than two hours are often the cause of food poisoning.
How to Tell Which Ailment You Have
Both food poisoning and stomach flu can cause diarrhea, stomach cramps and pain, nausea, vomiting, and a fever. When comparing stomach flu symptoms vs. food poisoning symptoms, the first thing you should consider is the length of time before onset of symptoms. It takes several days for stomach flu symptoms to begin after you are exposed to the virus, but food poisoning symptoms usually set in within six hours of eating the contaminated food.
Another clue you have food poisoning, and not the stomach flu, is whether or not others who ate the same foods are also getting sick within the six-hour window. Foods that commonly cause food poisoning symptoms include:
- Raw or undercooked poultry
- Raw or undercooked eggs
- Foods left unrefrigerated for more than two hours
Stomach flu symptoms also last longer than food poisoning symptoms. Typically, food poisoning will clear up within a few hours to a day, although some cases can cause symptoms lasting several days. Stomach flu, on the other hand, will last for up to 10 days.
The viruses that cause stomach flu are very contagious, so if someone in your family or household has had the stomach virus, and you begin to develop GI symptoms, chances are you’ve caught the bug. Stomach flu remains contagious from the time symptoms start to a few days after recovery, so you can even catch it from someone at work or school who does not realize he or she is still contagious because his or her symptoms have subsided. Stomach flu is spread by eating or drinking after the sick person, having mouth contact with him or her, or having contact with the sick person’s vomit or stool.
Treating Stomach Flu and Food Poisoning
Most cases of food poisoning will resolve within a day or so, so unless symptoms persist, most people don’t seek treatment. It’s often hard to diagnose the exact cause of a case of food poisoning, unless you can pinpoint a specific food that caused the illness. In severe cases, doctors may use stool samples to diagnose the cause of food poisoning. Antibiotics may be required for some cases of good poisoning.
If you think you have the stomach flu, your doctor may want to rule out other possible causes of infection, especially if you have bloody stool, which can be a sign of a more serious illness. Otherwise, treatment for both conditions involves getting plenty of rest, drinking lots of fluids, and taking over-the-counter medication to mitigate symptoms. The virus that causes stomach flu may affect your appetite, and you may need to stick to eating bland foods, like toast, crackers, and rice. Try to rest your stomach and stop eating if it makes you nauseated.
Both food poisoning and the stomach flu can be unpleasant, but while food poisoning usually goes away with a day or so, the stomach flu can put you out of commission for a week and a half. Knowing the difference between these two conditions can help you stop the spread of GI viruses, and let you know when to seek further medical attention.
Do you know how to tell whether you or a loved one has food poisoning or stomach flu?
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