Spotting the Difference: Is it the Stomach Flu or Food Poisoning?


Posted By Author on November 20, 2023

Your stomach feels like it’s twisting, and you can’t stray too far from the bathroom. Are you experiencing the aftermath of a colleague coughing into his hand before you borrowed his pen or the questionable-smelling sushi you had for dinner the night before?  

Figuring out whether you are experiencing the symptoms of stomach flu vs. food poisoning is a difficult question to answer. The similarity in symptoms, transmission, and potential causes can overlap. 

Continue reading to find out how to determine the difference between the two and how our board-certified gastroenterologists in Charleston can help!

lady with upset stomach, Stomach Flu or Food Poisoning

Similarity in the Symptoms 

Stomach Flu  

The stomach flu, or viral gastroenteritis, is commonly passed between groups of people gathering in a tight space, such as in a concert venue or aboard a cruise ship. Whether it’s contracted through touching contaminated surfaces or eating food that has been contaminated, it is no wonder it affects nearly 21 million Americans every year. 

For those suffering from a stomach flu, you may have one or more of the following symptoms: 

  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach cramps 
  • Nausea and vomiting 
  • Fever 
  • Body aches 
  • Headache 

Food Poisoning 

Food poisoning is the general term for illnesses caused by bacteria, viruses, or parasites. This illness is commonly spread through cross-contamination or by consuming raw or undercooked foods. 

Avoiding cross-contamination is a key component in preventing foodborne illnesses, such as salmonella or E. Coli. When raw or uncooked foods are handled improperly, harmful bacteria can be transferred during the food handling, storage, or cooking stage. 

For those suffering from food poisoning, you may be experiencing one or more of these symptoms: 

  • Abdominal cramps 
  • Upset stomach 
  • Nausea 
  • Diarrhea 
  • Vomiting
  • Fever 
  • Chills 

Distinguishing Between Stomach Flu and Food Poisoning 

Deciding if you have become the victim of a stomach bug or food poisoning comes down to two major factors: The onset of your symptoms and how long the symptoms last. 

The symptoms of a stomach bug take between 24 to 48 hours to develop. Food poisoning, on the other hand, occurs much faster, typically between two to six hours after eating the contaminated meal. 

If you happen to be one of the roughly 48 million people who experience food poisoning each year, you won’t have to suffer from the symptoms for too long. Food poisoning rarely lasts more than a day and could even be gone within a few hours. 

The length of symptoms for the stomach bug ultimately depends on the type of virus. Symptoms typically last around one to three days, while some can last as long as two weeks. 

Potential Complications 

While symptoms should decrease over the course of a few days, this is not always the case. If you continue to see symptoms or other complications arise, it may be time to see your doctor. Talk to your doctor if you experience any of the following:

  • High fever 
  • Symptoms of dehydration 
  • Bloody diarrhea 
  • Continuous or increased vomiting 

Contact our board-certified gastroenterologists at Charleston GI to rule out any underlying gastrointestinal complications if symptoms continue to develop and occur. Charleston GI doctors have the medical technology and knowledge to diagnose you and offer relief. 

Finding Treatment and Looking Toward Prevention 

Unfortunately, there are no specific treatments for the stomach bug or food poisoning. While both could result in dehydration, it is best to drink plenty of water and fluids containing electrolytes, as well as get some much-needed rest. 

Here are some ways to protect yourself from stomach bugs and food poisoning moving forward: 

  • Frequently washing your hands 
  • Washing fruits and vegetables before food preparation 
  • Cooking food at the proper temperatures:
    • Whole cuts of pork, beef, veal, and lamb: 145 degrees Fahrenheit 
    • Ground pork, beef, veal, and lamb: 160 degrees 
    • Poultry: 165 degrees 
  • Disinfecting high-traffic surfaces regularly

Still Having Difficulty Pinpointing Your Symptoms? Charleston GI Can Help! 

Suffering from food poisoning or a stomach bug not only can be debilitating on your intestines but can also make getting through the rest of your day extremely difficult. 

Here at Charleston GI, our board-certified gastroenterologists are experienced in treating a wide variety of conditions, and we will provide you with a diagnosis and the help you need to get you back up and moving. 

We have four convenient Charleston area locations to choose from, in West Ashley, Mount Pleasant, Summerville, and Carnes Crossroads. Charleston GI doctors are ready 5 days a week to offer you medical relief.

There’s no referral needed, so schedule your appointment today, with Charleston GI! 


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