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Food Poisoning vs Stomach Flu

Food poisoning and stomach bugs (or viral gastroenteritis as it is known medically) are common terms for two types of acute gastrointestinal (GI) illnesses resulting in stomach upset, vomiting and diarrhea.

No matter how many times you’ve had them in the past, they’re still terribly uncomfortable. Since the symptoms of both illnesses are similar, it can be tough to differentiate between the two. So if you find yourself sick with vomiting and diarrhea, here are some tips for determining whether it’s food poisoning or the stomach flu.

Key Differences: Food Poisoning and Stomach Bugs

You may not notice a big difference in how you feel when you come down with a stomach illness, but at the cellular level, it’s like comparing apples to oranges. Whereas a “stomach bug” or the “stomach flu” is generally caused by one of several types of virus, food poisoning is the result of bacterial contamination.  That means your medical provider may offer a treatment plan for one that they would not offer for the other.

Take a closer look at the key differences below:

  FOOD POISONING STOMACH FLU
What is it? A foodborne illness caused by bacteria, parasite, or virus A virus that infects the stomach
How is it Transmitted? Ingestion of contaminated food (even including unwashed fruits and vegetables or raw meats) Contact with infected person or exposure to virus in food
Signs and Symptoms Diarrhea, fever, fatigue, muscle aches, cramps, loss of appetite, severe abdominal pain, bloody stool or vomiting blood (in rare cases) Diarrhea, constipation, fever, loss of appetite or weight loss, nausea and vomiting, lowered blood pressure, stomach pain, muscle cramps, headaches
How Long Does it Last? 24-48 Hours (on average)

Up to 2-5 Days (on average)

When to Go to Urgent Care for Food Poisoning vs ER

Most of the time, it’s fine to pick Urgent Care if you want an opinion after coming down with food poisoning or a stomach bug. As long as you’re not in potentially life-threatening danger, Urgent Care providers will be able to offer the medical opinion you need.

That said, if it does seem serious, a trip to the ER may be in order. So, how do you know if food poisoning or a stomach virus is bad enough to warrant a hospital visit? If you’re experiencing one of the symptoms below, seek medical emergency attention immediately:

  • Blood in stool or vomit
  • Green or yellow colored vomit
  • Severe dehydration
  • Fever above 101°F
  • Severe and/or Constant Pain in the Abdomen
  • Passing out
  • Trouble swallowing or breathing

Getting Over Stomach Viruses & Food Poisoning

The path to feeling better is roughly the same even if stomach viruses are significantly different than food poisoning. As with most illnesses, staying hydrated is key. Since stomach viruses and food poisoning tend to result in your body expelling fluids, you’ll want to replenish those fluids with water, electrolyte drink or tea. Remember to stay away from alcohol and coffee, as these drinks are dehydrating and will keep you passing very watery diarrhea.

When you have a stomach illness, your digestive system tends to be sensitive. That means you’ll want to eat foods that are bland and easy to digest, and maybe even limit yourself to consuming liquids until you feel that you can handle solid food. Even if you love spicy food, it’s best to put down that hot sauce as spicy foods can be hard on the stomach while digesting. When in doubt, and looking for tried & true home remedies, you can follow the BRAT diet:

B – Bananas

R – Rice

A – Apples

T – Toast

Other easy to digest foods include potatoes, vegetables, and plain yogurt (if you are not sensitive to dairy products).

When food poisoning is caused by bacteria, sometimes antibiotics are prescribed. Unlike with viruses, bacteria can be fought with prescription medication, so be sure to seek medical attention, such as an urgent care. If antibiotics are not needed, staying hydrated and getting plenty of rest is usually your best bet to feeling better.

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