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Is It Food Poisoning or the Stomach Flu?

Many holiday celebrations include indulging in desserts and other rich foods with family and friends. However, in the midst of all the holiday feasting, many people experience stomach pain and nausea, which may result in more time in the bathroom than enjoying the festivities.

Is it food poisoning? Or do you have the stomach flu? Cases of norovirus (the leading cause of stomach flu) historically rise in December and peak in January, which can make it difficult to know what’s causing your stomach pain or nausea.

Here’s how to tell the differences between food poisoning vs. stomach flu, how you get them, and when to seek medical care.

What is food poisoning?

Food poisoning is caused by contaminated food, while stomach flu is caused by a virus. Sounds simple enough, right? But it’s actually more complicated than that. Let’s start with food poisoning.

How do you get food poisoning?

When you eat food infected with a toxic organism (such as a bacteria, fungus, parasite, or virus), your body jumps into defense mode and tries to eliminate the toxins through vomiting, diarrhea, fever, or all the above. While unpleasant, these symptoms should help your body return to normal health in a day or two.

Food contamination can occur at any point, especially if the food is not:

• Fresh
• Washed or handled properly
• Cooked to a safe internal temperature
• Stored at the appropriate temperature
• Refrigerated or frozen promptly

There are hundreds of types of food poisoning, but some are more severe than others. For example, food contaminated with listeria can cause a serious infection known as listeriosis, which kills hundreds of people each year. Foods that are more likely to contain listeria include soft cheeses, lunch meat, hot dogs, smoked fish, and raw sprouts.

Who’s at risk for food poisoning?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 48 million people experience food poisoning each year. Most cases are not life-threatening, but some are more likely to get sick from food poisoning than others. Young children, pregnant women, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems are all more susceptible to food poisoning complications.

What is stomach flu?

Despite its name, stomach flu has nothing to do with influenza (the virus that causes the flu). Stomach flu or “stomach bug,” is a general term for gastroenteritis, which is inflammation of your intestines.

How is stomach flu spread?

Viruses are the most common cause of stomach flu – typically, norovirus for adults and rotavirus for children. Both viruses primarily infect the lining of the small intestine.

Anyone can get stomach flu, usually from having direct contact with an infected person, touching a contaminated surface, or eating contaminated food. Norovirus is resistant to heat, so be sure to cook all foods (particularly shellfish) thoroughly. Carefully wash fruits and vegetables, and never prepare or handle another person’s food when you’re sick.

You’re more likely to get stomach flu where people share living or dining spaces, such as:

  • Childcare centers
  • Nursing homes
  • Dormitories
  • Camps
  • Military facilities
  • Cruise ships

Who’s at risk for stomach flu?

Stomach flu is less common than food poisoning but still affects more than 20 million people each year. Like food poisoning, stomach flu symptoms can be worse in babies, young children, older adults, and people of any age who are immune-compromised.

What is the difference between stomach flu and food poisoning?

Because food poisoning and stomach flu share so many symptoms – such as stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting – it can be hard to distinguish between them. Here are some key differences to watch for:

  • With stomach flu, it typically takes 24-48 hours for symptoms to appear. Food poisoning comes on much faster, usually just 2-6 hours after eating contaminated food.
  • Food poisoning also runs its course more quickly (12-48 hours), while stomach flu can last a week or more.

How are food poisoning and stomach flu treated?

Staying hydrated is very important for both illnesses. Avoid drinking sugary soft drinks or juices, which could upset your stomach even more or worsen your diarrhea. Only drink water or electrolyte beverages like Gatorade, Powerade, or Pedialyte to keep your fluid levels in check.

Some people also rely on the BRAT diet (bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast) until they can tolerate their usual diet.

If you have any signs of dehydration (such as dizziness, lightheadedness, or decreased urine output), severe stomach pain, bloody stools, or weight loss, visit a vybe urgent care center right away.

Antibiotics are rarely given for food poisoning or stomach flu unless you have a bacteria or parasite that requires antibiotic treatment. We might prescribe anti-vomiting or anti-nausea medication if you have significant trouble keeping food down.

Got stomach pain? Visit vybe today

If your stomach hurts and you feel lousy, you don’t have to guess what’s wrong— we’re here to help. Walk into your nearest vybe location to find out if you have food poisoning or stomach flu (or something else) so you can start feeling better.

When you visit vybe with an upset stomach, your vybe provider will take a detailed history of the past few days so we can make a diagnosis of food poisoning, stomach flu, or something else.