How to Tell the Difference Between Food Poisoning and a Stomach Bug

So you’re feeling terrible, but why? Knowing the reason for your upset stomach is the first step to feeling better. A nurse explains the difference between food poisoning and a stomach bug.

It’s a question no one ever wants to have to ask: Is this food poisoning or a stomach bug? Your stomach’s starting to feel uneasy, but where did it come from? Either way, food poisoning and stomach bugs are miserable at best and dangerous at worst.

Both types of upset stomach can feel similar, but they have a few key differences to help you know what is going on, and more importantly, when you’re going to get some relief.

Food poisoning or stomach bug?

Food poisoning is caused by eating some kind of contaminated food. According to the Government of Canada, approximately 4 million Canadians experience food-borne illness every year. It could be caused by eating raw foods or contaminated chicken, meat, fruits and vegetables. The symptoms of food poisoning include vomiting, diarrhea and a high fever, and it comes on quickly. The most common food-borne illnesses include SalmonellaClostridium perfringens and Campylobacter.

On the other hand, a stomach bug is caused by coming in contact with a virus like adenovirus or norovirus. Like food poisoning, a stomach bug can cause vomiting and diarrhea. You can catch the “stomach flu” by being in close contact with someone who has it or by touching a contaminated surface like a doorknob or phone.

It’s probably food poisoning if…

  • Your symptoms came on suddenly. Food poisoning can happen quickly, and it’s not uncommon to go from feeling normal one minute to running to the bathroom the next.
  • You have a high fever. The contaminated food can cause flu-like symptoms including a high fever, body aches and chills.
  • It’s fast and furious. Food poisoning is truly miserable, but at least it’s quick. It usually takes your body about 24 to 48 hours to rid itself of the illness.

It’s probably a stomach bug if…

  • Your symptoms started gradually. After you’ve been exposed to a stomach virus, symptoms usually show up about 12 to 48 hours later. They could start out as mild nausea or just feeling “off” before they really get going.
  • You’re experiencing other symptoms like a headache and dry mouth. A stomach virus can wreak havoc on your entire body, so be on the lookout for additional symptoms.
  • It hangs on for a few days. Most stomach bugs last two to five days, so break out the Netflix, because you may be on the couch for a while.

How to start feeling better

Because both food poisoning and stomach bugs need to run their course, there is no cure. Your best strategy is to get plenty of rest and replace fluids as you can. If you notice yourself becoming dehydrated from severe diarrhea or vomiting, try Pedialyte. Most of us reach for sports drinks when we’re sick, but they’re too high in sugar and could leave you feeling worse. If you find that you simply cannot keep any fluids down, it’s time to call your doctor.

Remember, your symptoms should start getting better soon. Grab your TV remote and a cup of tea; this too shall pass.

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