Stomach Virus or Food Poisoning? How to Tell the Difference

“Food poisoning” may sound much more sinister than “stomach virus,” and it sometimes is, but both illnesses can cause similar symptoms. You may experience diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal pain with either. A common concern with both is dehydration, which may be life-threatening if not addressed.

But one form of food poisoning, botulism, can affect your nervous system and may be fatal if not treated appropriately. Other types can cause kidney damage (certain E. coli strains) or developmental delays in infants and young children (certain listeria strains).

So it makes sense to understand the differences between these common stomach ailments and to know when you should call the doctor or seek urgent medical help.

The experts at Chesapeake ERgent Care are very familiar with both and have provided information that may help you spot the difference between a stomach virus and food poisoning. They’ve also included a list of concerning signs and symptoms to watch for that may require a trip to the office or, in some cases, immediate medical attention.

What is a stomach virus?

Often mistakenly referred to as the flu (the flu affects your respiratory tract), a stomach virus in medical speak is viral gastroenteritis, which causes inflammation of the lining of your stomach and intestines.

Several viruses can cause a stomach bug, the most common of which are the norovirus, adenovirus, and the rotavirus. These viruses are highly contagious and can spread quickly from person to person. They occur most often in late fall through early spring and frequently infect several students in a classroom at once or all members of a family, where close contact is the norm.

Symptoms of viral gastroenteritis usually appear within a day or two of exposure and may resolve within 24-48 hours. It’s also fairly common, however, for a stomach virus to linger for as long as 10 days.

What is food poisoning?

Food poisoning can occur when you consume foods or liquids that are contaminated with bacteria, parasites, or certain viruses.

Symptoms of food poisoning can occur quickly, sometimes within one to six hours of ingesting the contaminated product. Other contaminants, such as the hepatitis A virus, may take up to 28 days to produce symptoms.

You can encounter the contaminants responsible for food poisoning through a variety of ways. Undercooked ground beef, for instance, is the main culprit for spreading E. coli, but unpasteurized milk or apple cider, fresh alfalfa sprouts, and contaminated water can also contain E. coli.

Your risk of becoming ill after eating contaminated foods often depends on the type of organism present, the amount you consume, your overall health, and your age. Pregnant women, infants, seniors, and individuals with chronic illnesses such as diabetes are at higher risk of contracting food poisoning.

How can I tell the difference?

As they make their rounds, stomach viruses are often the topic at school or work. That may be your first clue that you’re dealing with viral gastroenteritis rather than food poisoning.

Otherwise, when it’s a stomach virus, you can expect symptoms such as:

  • Watery diarrhea
  • Nausea that may or may not be accompanied by vomiting
  • Mild fever
  • Abdominal pain or cramping

These symptoms typically level off and begin to wane within a day or two, but you may continue to feel less than your best for up to 10 days.

Symptoms of food poisoning are similar but may also include:

  • Extreme fatigue
  • Fever and chills with temp of 101 F or higher
  • Muscle aches and headaches
  • Sweating and excessive thirst
  • Bloody stools or vomit
  • Severe abdominal cramping
  • Confusion or loss of consciousness

In most cases, food poisoning resolves in a day or two, but the length of time can vary depending on the contaminant and how much of it you consumed.

When should I see the doctor?

We always encourage our patients to come in any time they’re concerned about their symptoms, even if you think it might be a simple stomach bug. It isn’t a wasted trip since we can typically provide treatments or tips to help keep you comfortable as the virus runs its course.

Otherwise, we recommend teens and adults see us if:

  • You’re unable to keep liquids down for 24 hours
  • You’ve been vomiting for more than two days
  • You notice blood in your vomit or stools

Bring your young child or infant in right away, or call, if:

  • You notice a temp of 102 F or higher
  • Your child complains of, or seems to be in, significant pain
  • There is bloody diarrhea or vomit
  • Your child seems lethargic, unusually sleepy or drowsy, or is very irritable and inconsolable
  • Your infant has vomiting that lasts more than a few hours, especially when accompanied by a sunken soft spot or other signs of dehydration

For state-of-the-art medical treatment in a friendly, patient-centered environment, come see the experts at Chesapeake ERgent Care.