Symptoms of the stomach bug and food poisoning can be similar. But food poisoning typically resolves faster and includes more severe symptoms.

If you’re in unexpected gastrointestinal distress, one question is probably at the front of your mind. Could this be food poisoning or is this a stomach bug? Both of these illnesses have similar symptoms and can come on quickly, so it can sometimes be difficult to tell them apart.

Read on to learn more about the similarities and 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
• vomiting
• 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 foods

Stomach bug vs. stomach flu

“Stomach bug” and “stomach flu” are both terms for viral gastroenteritis.

Symptoms of the stomach bug

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. It’s an inflammation of the stomach and intestines caused by a viral infection.

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

People typically develop stomach bug symptoms within 12 to 48 hours of being exposed to the virus. Many cases of the stomach bug resolve within a couple of days. However, the exact timeline will depend on the exact type of virus causing your symptoms. Some can take as long as 10 days to begin after infection, and last up to 2 weeks.

If your symptoms persist, talk with your doctor to rule out any complications or other illnesses.

Symptoms of food poisoning

Food poisoning is more common than the stomach bug. It’s estimated that roughly 48 million people experience food poisoning each year.

Typical symptoms of food poisoning include:

  • stomach or intestinal cramping
  • fatigue
  • diarrhea
  • fever
  • chills
  • muscle aches
  • headaches
  • sweating
  • thirst
  • general malaise

In severe cases, you can have:

The symptoms of food poisoning can appear anytime within hours to days or weeks after initial exposure. It depends on the pathogen causing the food poisoning. Symptoms typically get better within 2 days.

Can food poisoning be fatal?

Most forms of food poisoning aren’t fatal. One form called botulism can be fatal if people aren’t treated properly. The bacterium called Clostridium botulinum causes botulism. It produces toxins that impact the nervous system.

Botulism can cause blurred vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech, and other neuromuscular symptoms.

See your doctor if you suspect you have botulism. Botulism is extremely rare in the United States.

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What causes the stomach bug?

Several different viruses may cause the stomach bug. Viruses that most frequently cause it include:

The norovirus is by far the most common, and alone causes up to 21 million cases of the stomach bug in the United States each year.

Stomach bug caused by a rotavirus or norovirus infection is highly contagious. In the United States, infections most commonly occur between October and April. The most common way to contract the virus is from direct contact with someone who is sick.

You can also contract the virus from contact with a surface that someone who is infected has touched.

What causes food poisoning?

Food poisoning develops when infectious organisms such as bacteria, viruses, or parasites contaminate foods. Bacteria, such as Staphylococcus aureus and Salmonella are among the top five germs that cause food poisoning in the United States.

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

  • raw and undercooked eggs
  • raw sprouts
  • soft or unpasteurized cheeses, such as Brie and feta
  • unwashed vegetables and fruits
  • raw fish or oysters
  • contaminated water
  • unpasteurized beverages, such as milk, cider, and juice
  • undercooked rice

Food poisoning can occur in anyone, but it is most common in babies, young children, and the elderly.

If you’re traveling to an underdeveloped country, you may be at an increased risk for food poisoning. Never eat undercooked meat, fish, or egg (at-home or abroad) and get your water from a trusted source. When visiting a new country, it may be best to rely on bottled water.

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 or fontanels when they become dehydrated. A fontanel is also known as the soft spot on a baby’s head. You should seek medical attention if any of these symptoms occur.

Treating a stomach bug

Most of the time you can treat your stomach bug symptoms at home. The best remedy is just to allow yourself time to rest and recover from the virus. However, if symptoms persist for more than a few days, you may need to seek medical attention.

Drink plenty of fluids. Adults can drink sports drinks with electrolytes, and children can also drink fluid replacement solutions such as Pedialyte. These drinks, coupled with water, will help restore the body’s hydration balance. For best results, drink a few sips every half hour to an hour.

Limit sugary drinks or sodas, as these liquids don’t replace lost electrolytes. Coconut water is a great natural source of electrolytes as well, plus it’s much lower on sugar.

Once you feel ready to eat again, 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, spicy foods, and fried 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 3 days
  • fever above 102°F (38.8°C) in adults or above 101°F (38.3°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, you may need to be admitted to the hospital for intravenous fluid hydration. If you have severe bacterial food poisoning, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic.

Your doctor will review your symptoms and run tests to determine the best course of action. They’ll also give you a list of good foods to eat; they’re usually similar to the ones listed above.

Preventing the stomach bug

Even though the stomach bug is sometimes called the stomach flu, your annual flu vaccine will not prevent it. Different types of viruses cause the stomach flu. Antibiotics will not help treat the stomach bug because antibiotics work to treat bacterial infections, not viruses.

Take measures to prevent yourself from transmitting the stomach flu to others. You’re typically the most contagious when you’re feeling the worst and a few days afterward. The bug can stay in your stool for up to 2 weeks.

Wash your hands often and stay home from work or school for at least a few 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

Follow these steps to help prevent food poisoning:

  • Keep food preparation surfaces, utensils, and your hands clean.
  • Cook ground beef to 160°F (71°C).
  • Cook roasts, steaks, and chops 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 1 hour.
  • Throw out foods that look or smell questionable.
  • Be careful with drinking water when traveling to developed countries.

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 may:

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

Depending on the cause, your immune system function, and your overall health, food poisoning or viral gastroenteritis may become severe enough to require medical attention. However, many people can usually manage either condition with rest, hydration, and at-home medical treatment.

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