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.

A “stomach bug” or the “stomach flu” is generally caused by one of several types of viral infections like adenovirus, coronavirus or rhinovirus. 

General 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:

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 (38.3ºC) (see special considerations for children though)
  • 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

BRAT foods are plain, starchy, and low in fiber, which make great toddler diarrhea remedies. 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 viruses, bacteria can be fought with prescription medication, so be sure to seek medical attention, such as urgent care. If antibiotics are not needed, staying hydrated and getting plenty of rest is usually your best bet to feeling better.

Everything You Need to Know About Food Poisoning

Put simply, food poisoning is what happens when you eat food that is contaminated or spoiled. It’s very common in the U.S., but luckily, food poisoning rarely lasts more than 48 hours. 

Even mild food allergies are a form of mild food poisoning.

There is no science-backed definition for food poisoning – it’s a more generalized term. When people talk about food poisoning, they’re referring to a non-specific illness transmitted through food. Although bacteria is usually the culprit behind food poisoning, there are cases every year where food poisoning by parasites or viruses. 

Here are a few common types of bacteria that lead to food poisoning:

  • E. coli
  • Listeria
  • Salmonella
  • Campylobacter
  • Staphylococcus aureus
  • Clostridium perfringens

Even if parasites are less often the cause of food poisoning, it does happen. Toxoplasma, a parasite sometimes found in cat litter, is the parasite more often reported in cases of food poisoning. Other types of parasites include cryptosporidium, Entamoeba histolyica, and giardia. Typically, these parasites are transmitted through raw or uncooked meat, and food poisoning caused by parasites can lead to swollen glands and rashes.

As far as foodborne viruses, perhaps the most well known one is the norovirus. Over 19M cases are reported each year. The norovirus, aka Norwalk virus, is more likely to be transmitted and winter and can cause 1-3 days of discomfort. Although the norovirus is often transmitted through contaminated foods like raw produce and oysters, the virus can also be transmitted if you touch your nose, mouth, or eyes after coming into contact with the infection. Since there are many different types of noroviruses, building immunity to one does not mean you are immune to all types of noroviruses.

Everything You Need to Know About the Stomach Flu

Fun fact: the “Stomach Flu” isn’t actually related to the flu virus at all.

The only commonality is that stomach bugs and the flu are both viruses. The stomach flu lasts anywhere from 1-10 days, depending on your immune system and the individual strain of the virus.

Unlike food poisoning, stomach bugs are usually not contracted via contaminated foods. You catch a stomach virus like you catch the flu – by coming into contact with someone who is infected.

If you’re aware someone has the stomach flu, you’ll want to take extra precautions to wash your hands after touching something an infected person has touched.

Try to refrain from touching your eyes, nose, and mouth, as this is the easiest way to pass the virus on from the infected person to yourself.

Technically, you can catch a stomach virus. When this happens, it’s a similar effect to putting your hand in your mouth after touching an infected person.

Make sure to avoid sharing food and drinks with someone who has a stomach bug.

Reducing the Chance of Infection

By following a few simple tips, you can take the proper precautions to reduce the chances of food poisoning and stomach viruses. Even if you currently have one of these illnesses, it pays to take preventative measures in the future!

How to Prevent Food Poisoning

  • Ensure the person who prepares your food has washed their hands
  • Make sure seafood is thoroughly cooked
  • Cook beef to 160°F / Pork to 145°F / Poultry to 165°F
  • Avoid food left out of the refrigerator for 2+ hours
  • If food appears questionable, don’t consume it
  • Do not drink water that is non-potable

How to Prevent Stomach Viruses

When it comes to stomach viruses, it pays to be mindful of those who have a stomach bug. Make sure to wash your hands and refrain from touching your eyes, ears, and nose after coming into contact with an infected person. 

Also, with viruses, such as Clostridium perfringens and Campylobacter, making sure to thoroughly cook meat and poultry fully can help reduce the chance of viral infections.

Points to Take Home

Whether it’s food poisoning or a stomach bug, it’s never a fun time for the infected person. However, these two illnesses tend to pass quickly. Try to avoid questionable foods and take proper hygiene precautions around infected persons.

Millions of people catch stomach viruses and have food poisoning spells every year. In the U.S., more than 20 million stomach flu cases and around 48 million food poisoning cases are reported per year.

You’re not alone! Remember to stay hydrated, eat easily digested food, get your annual flu shot, and seek help when needed.

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