You’ve probably heard people talking about the stomach bug or stomach flu going around at work or your child’s school. But what exactly is it? The technical term for this sickness is viral gastroenteritis, which is an inflammation of the stomach and intestines.

Food poisoning is different. It’s more common than the stomach bug. About 1 in 6 Americans, or roughly 48 million people, experience food poisoning each year.

Read on to learn more about the differences between the stomach bug and food poisoning.

Stomach bugFood poisoning
Causevirusesbacteria, viruses, or parasites
Incubation period24-48 hours after exposure to virus2-6 hours after eating contaminated food
Symptoms • diarrhea or constipation
• fever
• vomiting
• nausea
• stomach or intestinal cramps
• joint stiffness
• weight loss
• diarrhea
• fever
• fatigue
• general malaise
• muscle aches
• headache
• sweating
• eye swelling
• difficulty breathing
• thirst
Prevention • wash your hands if you're sick or have been around someone who is sick
• talk to your doctor about the vaccine for Rotavirus
• if you're sick, stay home and avoid spreading it to other people
• keep your food preparation area and equipment clean
• fully cook meats and seafood
• refrigerate perishable foods
• discard questionable food

Symptoms of a stomach bug

If you have the stomach bug, or viral gastroenteritis, you may have one or more of the following symptoms:

Stomach bug vs. stomach flu"Stomach bug" and "stomach flu" are both terms for viral gastroenteritis.

People typically develop stomach bug symptoms within 24 to 48 hours of being exposed to the virus. Many cases of the stomach bug resolve within a couple of days. However, it’s not uncommon to feel sick for as many as 10 days. The longer the symptoms persist, the more you should be in touch with your doctor to rule out any complications or other illnesses.

Symptoms of food poisoning

Typical symptoms of food poisoning include:

In severe cases, you can have:

The symptoms of food poisoning usually appear two to six hours after initial exposure. Symptoms typically don’t last longer than two days. Food poisoning can occur in anyone, but it is most common in babies, young children, and the elderly.

Most forms of food poisoning aren’t lethal. One form called botulism can even be fatal if individuals aren’t treated properly. A strain of bacteria called Clostridium botulinum causes botulism. It produces toxins that impact the nervous system. Botulism can cause blurred vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech, and other symptoms. See your doctor if you suspect you have botulism. Botulism is extremely rare in the United States.

What causes the stomach bug?

Several different viruses may cause the stomach bug. Viruses that most frequently cause it include the norovirus, rotavirus, and adenovirus. The norovirus alone causes 21 million cases of the stomach virus in the United States each year. Other viruses such as the astrovirus can also cause this condition.

The stomach bug is highly contagious and most commonly occurs in the winter months from November and April. The most common way to catch the virus is from direct contact with someone who is sick. You can also catch the virus from contact with infected stool or vomit.

What causes food poisoning?

Food poisoning develops when infectious organisms such as bacteria, viruses, or parasites contaminate foods. Most commonly, either the bacterium Escherichia coli or Staphylococcus aureus is responsible.

You may get food poisoning from eating contaminated or undercooked meat. However, meat isn’t the only food that causes food poisoning. The following foods can also carry foodborne illness:

  • raw and undercooked eggs
  • raw sprouts
  • soft or unpasteurized cheeses, such as Brie and feta
  • vegetables and fruits that aren’t well-washed
  • raw fish or oysters
  • contaminated water
  • unpasteurized beverages, such as milk, cider, and juice
  • undercooked rice

After several days with either the stomach bug or food poisoning, you may develop dehydration. Watch for the following signs and symptoms of dehydration:

Babies may have sunken eyes and fontanels. The fontanel is also known as the soft spot. You should seek medical attention if any of these symptoms occur.

Treating a stomach bug

Dehydration is a serious concern for people who have the stomach virus. Watch for the symptoms of dehydration. You should seek medical attention if any of these symptoms occur.

Make sure you get plenty of fluids. Adults should drink fluids with electrolytes such as Gatorade, and children should get fluid replacement solutions. These drinks coupled with water will help restore the body’s hydration balance. For best results, drink about 2 to 4 ounces every half hour to an hour. Don’t drink fruit juice or sodas, as these liquids don’t replace lost electrolytes.

Once you feel ready to eat again, you should also give your stomach a break by slowly introducing bland foods into your diet. These may include:

  • cereals
  • whole grains
  • breads
  • potatoes
  • bananas
  • vegetables
  • fresh apples
  • plain yogurt
  • bananas

Avoid dairy, alcohol, caffeine, and spicy foods that might upset your stomach.

Treating food poisoning

You should contact your doctor if you experience any of the following:

  • blood or pus in your stool
  • diarrhea lasting more than five days in adults or more than two days in infants and young children
  • persistent diarrhea coupled with a fever above 101°F (38°C) in adults or above 100.4°F (38°C) in children
  • symptoms of dehydration, including fatigue and extreme thirst
  • symptoms of botulism
  • symptoms of food poisoning after visiting a developing country

If you have a mild case of food poisoning, it may respond well to rest and fever-reducing medications. If you have a severe case, your doctor may give you steroids to help with heart and muscle issues.

Your doctor will review your symptoms and run tests to determine the best course of action.

What to eat after food poisoning »

Preventing the stomach bug

Even though the stomach bug is sometimes called the stomach flu, your annual flu vaccine will not prevent it. A different type of virus causes the stomach bug. Antibiotics will not help treat the stomach bug because it’s a virus and antibiotics treat bacteria.

Take measures to prevent yourself from spreading the stomach flu to others. You’re most contagious when you’re feeling the worst and a few days afterward. The bug can stay in your stool for up to two weeks. Wash your hands often and stay home from work or school for at least three days after you feel better.

You should also consider having your baby get the vaccine against the rotavirus when they’re 2 months old.

Preventing food poisoning

Steps you can take to prevent food poisoning include the following:

  • keep food preparation surfaces, utensils, and your hands clean
  • cook beef to 160°F (71°C)
  • cook pork to 145°F (62°C)
  • cook chicken and turkey to 165°F (73°C)
  • make sure seafood is fully cooked
  • make sure canned foods are from trusted distributors
  • refrigerate any perishable foods within one or two hours
  • if a food looks questionable, throw it out

While many symptoms of the stomach bug and food poisoning are similar, it’s important to determine which sickness you may have. The symptoms of food poisoning:

  • occur more quickly after exposure
  • are usually more severe than symptoms of a stomach bug
  • are usually shorter in duration than symptoms of a stomach bug

Food poisoning is more likely to require medical attention since the symptoms are generally more severe than the symptoms of gastroenteritis. People can usually manage either condition with rest, hydration, and medical treatment. Food poisoning may require antibiotics as well.

If you’re unsure about what’s causing your symptoms, check in with your doctor to be safe. Other health issues can cause gastrointestinal distress. In any case, call your doctor for help if your symptoms worsen.