person laying on couch holding stomach

Is It a Stomach Bug or Food Poisoning?

We’ve all been there, and it’s not pleasant: vomiting or a bad case of diarrhea, or both. You ask yourself in moments of misery, “Was it something I ate, or did I catch this from someone at work?!” Most of the time we self-diagnose: “I have the stomach flu!” But how can you tell if it’s viral or food poisoning?

First of all, what we commonly refer to as the stomach “flu” is actually not the flu at all. A stomach virus is a highly contagious viral infection called gastroenteritis caused by viruses such as Rotavirus and norovirus. That means you caught it from someone else who was sick. Food poisoning can be caused by viruses, but the majority of food-borne illnesses are from bacteria or parasites. Common bacteria that cause food poisoning include E. coli and Salmonella that is found in meat, eggs, produce that is unwashed, raw seafood, or unpasteurized cheeses or drinks.

It can be difficult to distinguish the difference between the two, but it’s important to do so in case you have severe food poisoning. The symptoms are similar—diarrhea, vomiting, fever, stomach, headache, or muscle or joint aches. The key in differentiating the two is the incubation period and length of the illness. Most stomach bugs appear 24 to 48 hours after exposure and last for up to a week, and food poisoning happens more quickly—typically two to six hours after eating contaminated food, and lasts a shorter period of time. However, sometimes food poisoning can appear weeks after exposure— depending on the type of virus, bacteria or parasite.

Treatment and recovery is the same for both—rest, and stay hydrated with water or drinks with electrolytes. Stay away from juice and soda, which can worsen your illness. Once you can keep food down, keep it bland with the tried and true BRAT diet (bananas, rice applesauce, toast). Antibiotics are rarely used for stomach illnesses.

If it’s a virus, be sure to wash your hands frequently, and stay home to prevent spreading it to others.

To avoid food poisoning in the future, wash your hands often, cook meat thoroughly, keep your surfaces and utensils clean, throw out expired food and refrigerate perishables.

Whether it’s a virus or food poisoning, if you’re not getting better or symptoms are worsening (for instance, if you have blood in your stool), be sure to see your healthcare provider.