Whenever I have stomach issues, I lie and say I have a cold. As How I Met Your Mother once illustrated, if you tell someone you’re having tummy troubles, they'll picture you doing all kinds of gross things. And the image of me throwing up — or worse — is not one I want to broadcast to friends, coworkers, and crushes.
With my tracks covered, then I can start trying to figure out what's behind my symptoms: Is it food poisoning? Is it a stomach flu? At first glance, the two illnesses often look virtually identical, says Stephen Moff, MD, a gastroenterologist at Kaiser Permanente in Santa Clara, California. They're both a kind of gastroenteritis, or stomach inflammation. But they're caused by different things, he adds. And since one often requires a prescription to clear up, it's a good idea to be able to discern the difference between the two.
Here's how to figure out if what's ailing you requires more than R&R.
What are the differences between stomach flu and food poisoning?
The stomach flu is caused by different kinds of viruses, and is picked up the same way a cold is — though contact with someone at work, home, or in public who's sick. (BTW: The stomach flu is different from "the flu", aka influenza.) Traditionally, food poisoning is caused by a bacteria, virus, or other toxin that's ingested via a contaminated food or drink.
The former only lasts about 24 hours or so, and doesn't require antibiotics.
Food poisoning, on the other hand, can last much longer. For example, infections triggered by the E. coli strain of bacteria can cause symptoms such as cramping, diarrhea, and vomiting that last for five to ten days.
Is the stomach flu or food poisoning worse?
From a severity standpoint, Dr. Moff says food poisoning usually takes the ticket. Though both illnesses result in vomiting, nausea, and diarrhea, the symptoms caused by a food-borne illness are typically more severe and longer-lasting, and are sometimes accompanied by muscle aches, sweating, and trouble breathing, according to Healthline. It can even be fatal.
Do food poisoning and the stomach flu need to be treated differently?
The best thing you can do for both sicknesses is stay hydrated. When you're vomiting or having diarrhea, you're losing water fast — and as a result, you can wind up dangerously dehydrated before you know it, Dr. Moff says. That can make you feel even worse, plus lead to overhearing or even kidney issues, according to the CDC. Water, ginger ale, lemonade, mint tea, or electrolyte-enriched drinks like Pedialyte are all good options for staying quenched.
The stomach flu will typically go away on its own, Dr. Moff says, but sometimes food poisoning will call for an antibiotic.
Should I go to the doctor for the stomach flu or food poisoning? Or both?
If you can't keep anything down — including water — for longer than two days, if you have a fever, or if you notice blood in your stool, get to the doctor ASAP, Dr. Moff says. All of these symptoms could indicate you have a bacteria-triggered gastroenteritis that may need antibiotics. Plus, you may need an IV to get hydrated again.
Also see a medical professional if your symptoms last more than three days. You might require additional treatment, meds, or testing. You could also have something besides the stomach flu or food poisoning.
“If something seems like the flu, but it’s not going away — it’s kind of hanging around— and for a week or weeks you have irregular stools, it might be something totally different altogether," Dr. Moff says. "Some people will come into my office and see me, and say they have the flu, and if we do some investigation, we might figure out it's something more serious.”