Health & Wellness

Is It Just Food Poisoning or the Flu? How to Tell the Difference Between These Two Pesky Illnesses.

As the colder weather is upon us, so is the sniffles, runny noses, coughs, and stomach aches…

But, when you find yourself running to the bathroom every few minutes because you can’t keep your food down, your stomach is doing cartwheels, and you just feel weak all over – how do you know whether you have eaten something spoiled or picked up the terrible bug?

“To be honest, the clinical symptoms of stomach flu and food poisoning really overlap a lot,” says Dr. Michael Rice, director of inpatient medicine gastroenterology at the University of Michigan. “You can have vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal discomfort and fever with either.”

Typically, the most effective way to determine the difference between the two is to actually look back at the ill person’s recent history, Dr. Rice said.


“If the symptoms are caused by food poisoning, they tend to occur within hours of eating something,” says Rice. So, this means, if you can recall recently eating something questionable or know of others who ate the same food and are experiencing the same symptoms, it is safe to say that food poisoning is your diagnosis.

But, if you haven’t eaten anything questionable and are the only one to have picked up the illness, it is likely you have contracted something else, such as the flu. You more than likely contracted it via a handshake, sneeze, or something such as a contaminated doorknob, for example.

The “stomach flu,” formally known to doctors as acute gastroenteritis, actually is not caused by the influenza virus. The influenza virus which leaves most people experiencing the same symptoms around this time of year is actually a respiratory illness. On the contrary, the stomach flu is brought on by other common viruses that lead to GI issues. The effects of infections like these actually start one to three days following exposure to the virus.

When it comes to treatment for these symptoms, regardless of where they came from, Rice says they could actually be one and the same.

Your main concern should be keeping fluids down – make sure you are getting plenty of fluids in, but also ensure you are keeping them down…

“Anything involving vomiting and diarrhea can lead to dehydration, so you want to make sure you’re drinking water or a rehydration drink, like Pedialyte or a sports drink,” says Rice.

If the infected person begins showing signs of serious dehydration such as dark or decreased urine, muscle cramping, or lightheadedness, that is a sign to seek medical attention – likely an IV to replace the lost fluids will be required, said Rice.

If you find yourself still feeling the symptoms after two days, or if during the period of illness, you have a fever over 101 degrees that doesn’t break in a day or two, you should seek medical attention.

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