Stomach Bug or Food Poisoning: Learn the Differences


You’ve probably heard people talking about the stomach bug or stomach flu going around at work or your child’s school. But what exactly is it? The technical term for this sickness is viral gastroenteritis. It’s an inflammation of the stomach and intestines caused by a viral infection.

Food poisoning is different. It’s more common than the stomach bug. It’s estimated that roughly 48 million people experience food poisoning each year.

Read on to learn more about the similarities and differences between the stomach bug and food poisoning.

Symptoms of the stomach bug

If you have the stomach bug, also known as viral gastroenteritis, you may have one or more of the following symptoms:

Stomach bug vs. stomach flu

“Stomach bug” and “stomach flu” are both terms for viral gastroenteritis.

People typically develop stomach bug symptoms within 24 to 72 hours of being exposed to the virus. Many cases of the stomach bug resolve within a couple of days.

However, it’s not uncommon to feel sick for as many as 10 days. The longer the symptoms persist, the more you should be in touch with your doctor to rule out any complications or other illnesses.

Symptoms of food poisoning

Typical symptoms of food poisoning include:

  • stomach or intestinal cramping
  • fatigue
  • diarrhea
  • fever
  • chills
  • muscle aches
  • headaches
  • sweating
  • thirst
  • general malaise

In severe cases, you can have:

The symptoms of food poisoning can appear anytime within hours to days or weeks after initial exposure. It depends on the pathogen causing the food poisoning. Symptoms typically get better within two days.

Food poisoning can occur in anyone, but it is most common in babies, young children, and the elderly.

Most forms of food poisoning aren’t fatal. One form called botulism can be fatal if people aren’t treated properly. The bacterium called Clostridium botulinum causes botulism. It produces toxins that impact the nervous system.

Botulism can cause blurred vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech, and other neuromuscular symptoms. See your doctor if you suspect you have botulism. Botulism is extremely rare in the United States.

What causes the stomach bug?

Several different viruses may cause the stomach bug. Viruses that most frequently cause it include norovirus, rotavirus, and adenovirus.

The norovirus alone causes up to 21 million cases of the stomach bug in the United States each year. Other viruses such as astro viruses can also cause this condition.

Stomach bug caused by a rotavirus or norovirus infection is highly contagious. In the United States, infection most commonly occurs between October and April. The most common way to contract the virus is from direct contact with someone who is sick.

You can also contract the virus from contact with something someone infected has touched that contains their stool, saliva, or vomit substance with the virus in it.

What causes food poisoning?

Food poisoning develops when infectious organisms such as bacteria, viruses, or parasites contaminate foods. Bacteria, such as Staphylococcus aureus and Salmonella are among the top five germs that cause food poisoning in the United States. Norovirus is also within the same top-five list according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

You may get food poisoning from eating contaminated or undercooked meat. However, affected meat isn’t the only food that causes food poisoning. The following foods can also lead to foodborne illness:

  • raw and undercooked eggs
  • raw sprouts
  • soft or unpasteurized cheeses, such as Brie and feta
  • vegetables and fruits that aren’t well-washed
  • raw fish or oysters
  • contaminated water
  • unpasteurized beverages, such as milk, cider, and juice
  • undercooked rice

After several days with either the stomach bug or food poisoning, you may develop dehydration. Watch for the following signs and symptoms of dehydration:

Babies may have sunken eyes or fontanels when they become dehydrated. A fontanel is also known as the soft spot on a baby’s head. You should seek medical attention if any of these symptoms occur.

Treating a stomach bug

Dehydration may become a serious concern for people who have the stomach virus. Watch for the symptoms of dehydration. You should seek medical attention if any of these symptoms occur.

Make sure you get plenty of fluids. Adults can drink fluids such as Gatorade with electrolytes, and children can also drink fluid replacement solutions such as Pedialyte. These drinks coupled with water will help restore the body’s hydration balance. For best results, drink a few sips every half hour to an hour.

Don’t drink sugary drinks like Kool-Aid or sodas, as these liquids don’t replace lost electrolytes. Taking in ice chips or drinking plain water is another good option for staying hydrated.

Once you feel ready to eat again, give your stomach a break by slowly introducing bland foods into your diet. These may include:

  • cereals
  • whole grains
  • breads
  • potatoes
  • bananas
  • vegetables
  • fresh apples
  • plain yogurt
  • bananas

Avoid dairy, alcohol, caffeine, and spicy foods that might upset your stomach.

Treating food poisoning

You should contact your doctor if you experience any of the following:

If you have a mild case of food poisoning, it may respond well to rest and fever-reducing medications. If you have a severe case, you may need to be admitted to the hospital for intravenous fluid hydration. If you have severe bacterial food poisoning, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic.

Your doctor will review your symptoms and run tests to determine the best course of action.

Preventing the stomach bug

Even though the stomach bug is sometimes called the stomach flu, your annual flu vaccine will not prevent it. Different types of viruses cause the stomach bug. Antibiotics will not help treat the stomach bug because antibiotics work to treat bacterial infections, not viruses.

Take measures to prevent yourself from transmitting the stomach flu to others. You’re typically the most contagious when you’re feeling the worst and a few days afterward. The bug can stay in your stool for up to two weeks.

Wash your hands often and stay home from work or school for at least a few days after you feel better.

You should also consider having your baby get the vaccine against the rotavirus when they’re 2 months old.

Preventing food poisoning

Follow these steps to help prevent food poisoning:

  • Keep food preparation surfaces, utensils, and your hands clean.
  • Cook ground beef to 160°F (71°C).
  • Cook roasts, steaks, and chops to 145°F (62°C).
  • Cook chicken and turkey to 165°F (73°C).
  • Make sure seafood is fully cooked.
  • Make sure canned foods are from trusted distributors.
  • Refrigerate any perishable foods within one hour.
  • Throw out foods that look or smell questionable.

While many symptoms of the stomach bug and food poisoning are similar, it’s important to determine which sickness you may have.

The symptoms of food poisoning may:

  • occur more quickly or later after exposure
  • become more severe than symptoms of a stomach bug
  • be shorter in duration than symptoms of a stomach bug

Depending on the cause, your immune system function, and your overall health, food poisoning or viral gastroenteritis may become severe enough to require medical attention. However, many people can usually manage either condition with rest, hydration, and at-home medical treatment.

If you’re unsure about what’s causing your symptoms, check in with your doctor to be safe. Other health issues can cause similar symptoms of gastrointestinal distress. In any case, call your doctor for help if your symptoms worsen.

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