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.