Food Poisoning vs. Stomach "Bug": 5 Things You Need to Know - ConvenientMD

Food Poisoning vs. Stomach “Bug”: 5 Things You Need to Know


We all dread and despise that feeling of being sick to your stomach. There’s nothing worse than being stuck in the bathroom for days in a row. Food poisoning and stomach “bugs” are commonly misconceived to be the same illness. It can be difficult to pinpoint which you are suffering, as food poisoning shares a number of symptoms with common stomach viruses. If you or a family member experience a severely upset stomach, how can you tell if it is food poisoning or a “stomach bug?” Here are five things you need to know about how the two differ from one another.

1. Food Poisoning is Usually Bacterial vs. Viral

When a true case of food poisoning occurs, the cause is often cross-contamination, which happens when harmful organisms such as E. coli are transferred from surface to surface and eventually end up contaminating food otherwise proper for consumption. Bacterial growth from food being left out in the sun or an otherwise warm, moist environment can also contribute to food poisoning. The “stomach bug,” as it is often called, is viral in nature, with symptoms typically resulting from highly contagious viruses such as norovirus.

2. The Symptoms of Each Illness are Slightly Different

Food poisoning and infection from stomach viruses can cause similar symptoms in patients, such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. However, there can be additional varying symptoms of each illness to look out for.

Symptoms of Food Poisoning Include:

  • Stomach pain
  • Cramps
  • Fever
  • Bloody stool (a sign of potentially serious infection)

Symptoms of Stomach Viruses Include:

  • Watery or loose stools
  • Loss of appetite
  • Muscle aches
  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Fever (typically low-grade)
  • Headache
  • Dizziness

3. Food Poisoning Comes On Fast

While it’s not always easy or possible to pinpoint the exact source of food poisoning when someone gets sick from eating contaminated food, the quick onset of illness often provides clues as to what may have been the culprit. Symptoms of food poisoning typically come on strong and fast, with nausea and vomiting often resulting within six hours of eating contaminated food. An additional factor that may suggest food poisoning is if more than one person ends up getting sick after eating the same food, which is often the case with E. coli or salmonella outbreaks.

4. Stomach Viruses Last Longer

Food poisoning is certainly no fun and can lead to complications in the elderly or those with compromised immune systems. Unlike stomach viruses, however, food poisoning often runs its course within a few days, and more commonly within 24-36 hours. While some stomach viruses may also come and go quickly, they can cause lasting discomfort for up to 10 days.

5. A Stomach Virus or Food Poisoning May Cause Dehydration

If you are suffering from stomach virus or food poisoning, it’s important to be on the lookout for signs of dehydration. If you are experiencing symptoms of dehydration such as increased thirst, dry mouth, headache, dizziness, fatigue or decreased urine output, you should seek medical attention. To avoid becoming dehydrated, be sure to drink fluids regularly. You should consume plain water or drinks with electrolytes such as Gatorade, or Pedialyte for children. Stay away from caffeinated drinks.

Diagnosing food poisoning or a stomach virus can be tricky, but keeping these five things in mind can help to determine which you are suffering from. Generally, both illnesses will pass with rest, extra fluids and at home remedies. However, if your symptoms become severe or you begin to experience signs of dehydration you should seek medical attention. If you or a family member needs to be seen by a provider, you can just walk in to any ConvenientMD – no appointment needed.