Stomach Flu vs. Food Poisoning

Being laid up in bed with nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea is never a pleasant experience. When it comes to food poisoning vs. stomach flu, how can you tell which it is?

Being confined to bed with a few days of nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea is never a pleasant experience. Symptoms like this can leave you feeling tired and completely drained of energy even after the discomfort goes away. When symptoms like this strike, you may wonder what the real diagnosis is. Is it food poisoning or stomach flu and is there a way to tell the difference?

What is the stomach flu?

The term stomach flu is actually a misnomer since this condition is caused by one of several viruses that differ from the ones that cause influenza, the “true” flu. (Influenza usually causes respiratory symptoms, but gastrointestinal ones.) When people say they’ve had a case of the stomach flu they’re actually referring to a condition called viral gastroenteritis, caused by a variety of viruses that infect the intestinal tract. These viruses can lead to those very uncomfortable symptoms that’ll keep you parked in the bathroom for a few days.

What about food poisoning?

In contrast to viral gastroenteritis, food poisoning is usually caused by bacteria that’s contaminated food that you’ve recently eaten. Contamination may occur at any stage of food preparation. In the case of meat, it could have occurred as far back as the slaughter house and with produce it can sometimes be traced all the way back to the fields where the vegetables were grown. It can also occur during preparation of the food in a restaurant or home kitchen setting. This is why it’s so important to cook food thoroughly and not allow it to set out at room temperature. Cases of food contamination that occur during food preparation can usually be prevented by taking simple precautions to prevent the growth of bacteria.  

Food poisoning vs. stomach flu: Which is it?

When it comes to food poisoning vs. stomach flu, how do you know which it is? Unfortunately, the symptoms of the two conditions doesn’t always provide the answer since they can be quite similar including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, chills, and, in some cases, lightheadedness and dizziness due to dehydration. Food poisoning can occasionally have a more sinister side producing complications that can lead to hospitalization or even death, particularly in children. The stomach flu or viral gastroenteritis rarely leads to serious complications other than, possibly, dehydration.

Since symptoms are the same when it comes to food poisoning vs. stomach flu, the biggest clue you may have in determining the cause is whether other people who ate the same food as you became ill. If so, the cause is most likely to be food poisoning. If the food was eaten in a restaurant, it may be more difficult to clinch the diagnosis, although you can call the health department and restaurant to see if there were other reports of illness.

Can your doctor tell which it is?

In some cases, you can distinguish between food poisoning vs. stomach flu by having your doctor take cultures of your stool and send them to the lab. The stool can be tested for bacteria, as would be seen with food poisoning, or viruses, characteristic of viral gastroenteritis. In most cases, unless you’re seriously ill or food poisoning is strongly suspected based on history, this won’t be done unless you request it.

In most cases of uncomplicated food poisoning vs. stomach flu, the treatment will be the same. Lots of fluids and bed rest. Although it may be tempting to take medication to stop the diarrhea, this isn’t usually a good idea since the bad bacteria or virus is eliminated in this way. Although you might think you’d be given antibiotics for food poisoning cause by a bacteria, this usually isn’t done in uncomplicated cases since it doesn’t shorten the duration of the illness and may actually cause you to shed the virus in your stool longer, increasing the risk of transmitting it to others.

The good news when it comes to food poisoning vs. stomach flu? You’ll probably recover from either, although, rarely, food poisoning can cause more serious problems. The bad news? You may never know which you had unless you shared the food with someone else and they became ill.

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  1. Interesting article, I’m prone to stomach illness. This helps me get a better grasp of how I should communicate with my doctor.

  2. hey hey hey my sister has the stomach viruse

  3. hey hey hey my sister has the stomach viruse

  4. UGH which ever one it is im dying of either……. vommiting when there is nothing in your stomach.. breathing is difficult when your vommiting.. diareah.. and i am sooooo tired OMG.. and pepto bismol DOES NOT WORK AT ALL :(

  5. Well, I still don’t know if it’s a virus or food poisoning but I do know that I feel horrible. I ate a fish sandwich from a local, well known restaurant and within 10 minutes I was sooooo sick. It will be a long time before I eat fish again!!!! I completely agree with Victoria. Nothing works at all. Get better everyone.

  6. I got very sick on Friday after eating @ JITB I had the chicken pita sandwich. Within hours I was pewking and so tires. The next day I got the runs. Today I feel better but am still very weak and have the second thing. I’ve been drinking lots of water and diet pop. Not sure if it was food poisoning or the flu. Did not go to the doctor so never got the test. Hopefully I can go to work tomorrow.

  7. I got very sick on Friday after eating @ JITB I had the chicken pita sandwich. Within hours I was pewking and so tires. The next day I got the runs. Today I feel better but am still very weak and have the second thing. I\’ve been drinking lots of water and diet pop. Not sure if it was food poisoning or the flu. Did not go to the doctor so never got the test. Hopefully I can go to work tomorrow.

  8. My mom suddenly has really bad diarhea on a Monday night. She assumed it was the Progresso Soup she had for lunch. Well, the following Tue, around 2:00 MY stomach starts feeling weird, like there’s a knot in it. As the hour pass, it gets stronger and stronger. At 6:00 I have diarhea. Lots of Diarhea until 9:00 when I decided throwing up might cause me some relief. So, I threw up, A LOT. More diahrea. Threw up again at 10:30. More diarhea. Laid down and tried to sleep. Felt good to lay down, but still kept getting stomach pains. Once I stood up to go to the bathroom, I almost fainted, couldn’t remember where I was for a second. Made it to the bathroom, more diarhea, lots of vomiting. This continued through the night. Felt better this morning, but still very weak. I feel very hungry, but too nausious to eat. My mom said she felt fine Tues and Weds. But her and I didn’t any of the same food. So, I can’t decide whether it’s food poisoning or stomach virus. I’m at work cuz I feel OK (not 100%, but ok) but I don’t want to spread it if it’s a virus! What do I do???

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  10. i wont survive this two days of non-stop vomit! im so weak

  11. get to the doctor for some hyrdation

  12. If you are weak or feeling “very hungry” go to the hospital because you’re dehydrated. You need to have fluids to avoid complications.

  13. I ate over at my inlaws and had some barbeque that was truely terrible. I went home and commented that the food was terrible. Next morning took a dump that smelled soo foul that i had to flush it immediately. 4 hours later all hell broke loose. Have been sick for 2 days now. Oh god please let this pass. No one else sick. Maybee its just in my mind..

  14. Drink Gatorade and / or Powerade to help replenish electrolytes lost in all the vomiting / diarrhea.

  15. Every time i tried to eat or drink something, i could never hold it down. It was horrible. D: This was just yesterday and after 24 hours i lost 6 pounds. I’m still light-headed and a bit dizzy and my throat hurts from throwing up about 10-15 times yesterday. (yay for motrin) i’m just glad its over.

  16. what do i do if i am like the biggest emetophobic person ever and whenever my family feels sick i freak out and hyperventilate! what should i do?

  17. Ate a big meat and bean burrito from a popular restaurant. The next day I was laid up. Had night sweats though and no vomiting, so I don\’t know if it was the burrito. Nonetheless, it will be awhile before I eat a burrito from that place again.

  18. Ugh. This has been a horrible run, and it’s not over, yet. I’ve been experiencing vomiting, diarrhea, chills, night sweats, muscle aches, headache, stomach ache, lethargy, tiredness. Just awful.

  19. How do horrible chills factor into this discussion? Between trips to the bathroom I simply could not get warm.

  20. I was viciously ill for 2 days (Sat and Sunday) I could barely stand cuz everything was spinning, it was terrible. I’m wondering whether it was a stomach virus or food poisoning, the fainty-ness and chills and cold sweats that I had for the first night have now faded away. I’m able to stay conscious and stand for more than 20 minutes at a time, and have now developed diarrhea. Which also blows chunks. =(
    Any idea what’s goin’ on here? Pfft. =(

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  22. I ate a burrito and nachos last night from el atacor, after being on a very healthy diet for several months. Maybe I\\\’m just not used to the junk food anymore, I\\\’m not sure what I have! But I feel like crap. Woke up to a nasty gurgling in my stomach, yup diarrhea, then more diarrhea. Then nausea. Then stomach cramps, then a little later a headache. Tried to rest, then woke up with a fever. My body aches all over! Don\\\’t feel like eating anything. My friend suggested charcoal pills, or a burnt tortilla. So I\\\’m trying it. Hopefully it helps soon, I\\\’m miserable.

  23. If you’ve been on a very low fat diet for months, and then eat something with lots of fat, you can get the symptoms you describe. I did it a while back and then gave in to a craving for a cheeseburger after not having one for more than 6 months. Let me tell you – it wasn’t worth it! The stomach cramps alone will keep me from trying that again! Hope you’re feeling better.

  24. Had Christmas eve dinner w/family and we all ate different things (some can\’t/won\’t eat shrimp, others no sausage) and most of the adults there ended up with some sort of stomach thing. Can\’t trace it back to one particular food that we all had eaten. Different symptoms with different people too – some vomiting & diarrhea, others diarrhea with fever & chills (me) others just the diarrhea. What the heck is going on?? I just ate some hummus and a pita bread (very mild and simple) and am starting to feel icky again. Will this just go away!!!

  25. Oh yeah, forgot to mention the sharp, stabbing pains at the bottom of my sternum that made me start to cry like a baby at 3am. Not a good weekend.

  26. I have intestinal cramps big time. Burping helps but still have blow chuncks and anal urination. At least this was afterbthe holidays. Hope everyone feels better!

  27. I think that I got food poisoning from some fresh spinach I put on my pizza…. I am not sure I just know that I feel really gross :( This article was helpful, I am going to call the Health Dept to see if there have been any other cases with the spinach.

  28. just had some “meatless monday” crap for dinner at my schools cafeteria. i think it was the risotto that did it… woke up at 5 in the morning puking and and had a fever all day. can’t keep anything down, can’t get warm, still feeling chills and it’s the next night. although feeling a lot better than before. crazy thing is a few people on campus experienced same thing, so it must have been that damn risotto. GRRR SODEXO.

  29. Well you don’t get a cold and sore throat and chest cold normally when you get food poisoning !

  30. taking apple cider vinegar works. activated charcoal capsules work also.

  31. my 4yr old step son started pooping like crazy friday morning and this went on until mid saturday. now its sunday and my husband just started pooping like crazy with stomach pains, he said it feels like back flips in his belly. Is it just a coincident that the both of them felt ill or should i be worried to be the next in line to get this illness?

  32. has anyone gone to bed feeling ok and literally is awakened by bloat, gas, indigestion, and diahreah for no apparent reason? it felt like i was dying! and oh the tiredness and chills!! nausea to. no vomiting but yuck!! i ate saltines and drank ginger ale. they helped for a few minutes. then i took a prilosec and within 30 minutes i was 80% better!! can anyone comment?

  33. Ate produce from mexico…never again!!!!!

    I have never had food poisoning but have had
    a stomach flu many times…..totally different symptoms
    in my opinion.I threw up about 50-70 times in 5 hours
    it was f-n brutal and violent like my body was at war
    and not just sick.the next day It was almost like nothing
    ever happened except for being slightly dehydrated.

    It smelled like death and knocked a big strong
    man down like a paper tiger…bacteria is powerful.

  34. I am allergic to almost every antibiotic and have heart problems that act up when I’m sick so after spending two nights in the hospital about 4 1/2 years ago I started searching and praying for help with constantly getting so sick from flu and viruses.

    Apple Cider Vinegar is scientifically and user proven to prevent most flu viruses. I have been taking 2 teaspoons with a little water for 4 years and have not gotten sick even when a houseguest had the swine flu. This also prevents bladder and kidney infection along with a long list of other things. It has to do with raising the ph in your body. I really believe this is an answer to my prayers and take it daily.

    Cilantro is a natural antedote for several types of food poisoning. It is so powerful that the FDA is trying to figure out how to use it in packaging raw meats.

    Grapefruit seed oil (NOT GRAPE SEED) was recently studied over several years and found to kill almost every type of cold and flu virus…99 percent. Taste terrible and please DON’T try to crush seeds to get it as I’m pretty sure that’s not safe. It’s about $15 – 20 for a small bottle but only need a few drops in water /juice.

    Please check out possible side effects and drug interactions before taking!!!

    God bless you all

  35. What does this have to do with stomach flu or food poisoning?

  36. Been dealing with the same. Woke up with some wicked diarrhea, then the vomiting started. Exhaustion set in, so after another bout with my bowels, I went back to bed from one to five, just to wake up to more stomach pain. I vomited about six or seven times throughout the day, at one time even throwing up a small amount of blood (I’m positive it was nothing RED that I had eaten). I was weak, dizzy, light-headed, and downright exhausted! I couldn’t even stay up to watch the new episode of
    The Walking Dead! Called it an early night, but did nothing but toss and turn, with hot flashes and chills battling for my attention. It’s been over thirty hours and I stil haven’t been able to eat anything, although no puke today. Bout to go for some chicken noodle soup and hope for the best…because I do NOT want to call in sick to work again tomorrow, that’s for sure.

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