Food Poisoning vs. Stomach Flu – How to Spot the Difference

October 3, 2016

That telltale rumble in your stomach, those waves of nausea – both signal a miserable 24 hours ahead. But how do you know your symptoms are due to food poisoning or simply a bout of the stomach flu? The two conditions carry many of the same symptoms, but food poisoning is often the result of someone else’s negligence (in either stocking or handling your food). Know how to tell the difference – and when you can file a personal injury claim.

The Stomach Bug

Stomach bugs are also referred to as viral gastroenteritis, which is a simple way of saying your stomach or intestines get irritated from a viral cause. Norovirus, which runs rampant on cruise ships and in daycare centers, is a common example. When you have the stomach flu, you may experience:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Fever
  • Weight loss
  • Muscle and joint aches
  • Stomach cramps
  • Headache

Symptoms from the stomach flu typically manifest 24-48 hours after exposure to the virus. Bouts of the stomach flu, though miserable, last only a couple of days, but it’s common for victims to feel out of sorts for up to 10 days. The stomach flu is not usually dangerous, but you should be in contact with your doctor if you see blood in your vomit or feces, or if you can’t keep water down.

Food Poisoning

By contrast, a pathogen that’s bacterial in nature usually causes food poisoning. Common culprits are E. coli, salmonella, and listeria. Symptoms of food poisoning typically present within two to six hours of exposure and include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Fever
  • Bloody stool
  • Chills
  • Thirst
  • Sweating
  • Shock (severe)
  • Loss of consciousness (severe)

Anyone can get food poisoning, but it’s most likely to affect babies, young children, pregnant women, and the elderly severely. While most of us will recover from a bout of food poisoning in a couple of days, some kinds can be fatal. Clostridium botulinum, for example, causes botulism infection, which can be fatal to babies and the immunocompromised (this is also why physicians advise parents to avoid feeding honey to children less than 1 year old).
Other common food sources of sickening bacteria include:

  • Soft cheeses
  • Unpasteurized juices, cider, and raw milk
  • Raw sprouts
  • Undercooked and raw eggs
  • Raw flour
  • Contaminated water
  • Raw fish
  • Fruits and vegetables that aren’t properly washed

Treating Food Poisoning and Stomach Flu

Thankfully, most of us will make a full recovery from either condition within a couple of days. Some populations, however, require a close watch. Pregnant women, infants, and the elderly can become dehydrated easily. Seek medical attention if you experience:

  • Blood or pus in stool
  • Diarrhea lasting more than five days for adults, or more than two days for children
  • A fever above 101 in adults or 100.4 in children
  • Excessive fatigue

When you feel ready to eat again, start slowly. Most physicians recommend the BRAT diet: bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast. These foods are easy on the stomach, digest well, and have electrolytes your body needs to recover. There’s no need to rehydrate with sports drinks – water will work just as well.
If you’re caring for a person who is experiencing symptoms, wash your hands frequently in hot water and wash all surfaces with diluted bleach. Launder all soiled linens on a hot water setting, for the longest time allowed by your washing machine.

When to Call a Lawyer

If you experience a bout of food poisoning, consider going to the doctor and having your stool tested for the presence of a bacterial pathogen. If that pathogen matches one found in a sample of contaminated food, you may have a case for negligence. Believe it or not, you can pursue a personal injury claim for food poisoning. If you’re unsure of what to do, talk to a food poisoning attorney about your options.