How to Tell Between the Flu, the Stomach Flu, and Food Poisoning

For the stomach flu and other types of food poisoning, it's a good idea to see a doctor online even if you are able to recover at home.



How to Tell Between the Flu, the Stomach Flu, and Food Poisoning

What is the difference between food poisoning and the stomach flu?

Foodborne illnesses and seasonal influenza can both cause similar symptoms but are quite different diseases. These diseases differ in prevalence, root causes, and severity. The prevalent strains, severity, and geographic spread of influenza viruses can vary widely from year to year; meanwhile, the prevalence of foodborne illness is fairly consistent over time.


What is food poisoning and what causes it?

Food poisoning is gastroenteritis—inflammation of the stomach and intestines—caused by consuming contaminated food or water. The contaminating agent can be a virus such as Norovirus or Rotavirus, in which case the disease is called “viral gastroenteritis” or “the stomach flu”. These viruses are often found on unwashed leafy greens and in raw shellfish. There are about 3 million cases of the “stomach flu” each year in the United States out of a total of about 48 million cases of foodborne illness.

Food poisoning can also be caused by a bacterium such as Salmonella, Staphylococcus aureus (“Staph”), Clostridium perfringens, or Clostridium botulinum (“botulism”). These bacteria are often found in raw or undercooked poultry, meat, fish, or eggs, all of which must be thoroughly cooked before being consumed. Some foodborne illnesses are also caused by parasites such as Giardia, commonly found in water that has been contaminated with animal or human feces.


What is the difference between the stomach flu and the regular flu?

Bacterial, viral, and parasitic gastroenteritis all fall under the umbrella of “foodborne illness”. Viral gastroenteritis may be called the “stomach flu” but it should not be confused with the regular, seasonal influenza. Some people might be surprised to learn that food poisoning is actually more common than the seasonal flu in the United States. The CDC estimates that there are between 9 million and 45 million cases of flu illness each year while there are 48 million cases of foodborne illness during a typical year. Another way to look at this is that about 3% to 14% of the U.S. population gets sick and develops symptoms of the flu each year, while about 15% gets sick with a foodborne illness. while about 1 in 7 Americans gets sick with a foodborne illness.

Another surprising fact is that the regular flu is, on average, more deadly than foodborne illness. The CDC estimates that the flu causes between 140,000 and 810,000 hospitalizations and between 12,000 and 61,000 deaths each year, while the 48 million cases of food poisoning result in an estimated 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths annually. One reason why foodborne illness may be less deadly than the flu on average is because it does not attack the lungs. However, the same demographics who are at high risk of complications or death from the flu are at risk of complications or death from food poisoning: older adults over age 65, children under age 5, pregnant women, and those with compromised immune systems due to underlying health conditions.


How do I tell the difference between food poisoning and the flu?

It is difficult for a non-medical professional to tell the difference between the “stomach flu” and another foodborne illness caused by a bacteria or parasite; seeing an online doctor can help. It is relatively easy to tell between foodborne illness and the regular flu by paying close attention to the symptoms. Influenza infections are always caused by a virus and affect the whole body, including the respiratory system. If you feel congested or your entire body aches, then you may have the flu. If your symptoms appear very rapidly and affect primarily your digestive system but not your respiratory system, then there is a good chance that you are experiencing food poisoning and not the stomach flu. In other words, if your nose, throat, and lungs feel normal but your stomach is in severe pain and you feel nauseous, then it is likely that you have food poisoning and not the flu. Nausea and vomiting are typical symptoms of foodborne illness; these symptoms are rare, though still possible, as a result of the flu.

Flu symptoms typically appear within 24 to 72 hours of exposure to an influenza virus and typically last about 5 to 7 days, but in rare cases can last 10 days to 2 weeks or more. Common symptoms of the flu include a fever, a sore throat, a runny or stuffy nose, a headache, a cough, chills, muscle cramps, body aches, and sometimes diarrhea and/or vomiting. Food poisoning symptoms typically appear far more rapidly, within 30 minutes to 6 hours after exposure, or in some cases up to 24 hours after exposure. Symptoms of food poisoning often include nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, diarrhea, and sometimes even a fever; these symptoms typically last anywhere from several hours to about 2 days and usually resolve naturally without medical treatment.


Do antibiotics work to treat the stomach flu?

Antibiotics do not work against viruses, including Rotavirus and Norovirus which cause the “stomach flu.” Even for bacterial gastroenteritis, doctors are cautious about using antibiotics because unnecessary use of antibiotics can create antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Only in moderate to severe cases will doctors consider prescribing antibiotics to treat bacterial gastroenteritis.


When should I see a doctor if I have a foodborne illness or the flu?

To lower your risk of food poisoning, make sure that you only consume foods which are fresh and have been stored at the proper temperature. Make sure that produce is thoroughly washed before consuming and that meat, fish, and egg products are cooked thoroughly; refrigerate leftovers quickly and throw away foods which have sat out at room temperature for 4 hours or more.

For the “stomach flu” and other types of foodborne illness, it may be possible to recover from mild cases at home but it is still a good idea to consult with a medical professional.  Simply drink plenty of fluids to replenish water and electrolytes, rest, and allow the body to naturally flush out the toxins. In some cases, over-the-counter medications such as Pepto-Bismol can help relieve symptoms of foodborne illness. Treating mild cases of the regular flu also involves drinking lots of fluids, getting plenty of rest, and using over-the-counter remedies such as nasal decongestants and pain relievers.

If you think you are sick with a foodborne illness or the flu, schedule an online doctor visit for just $59.99 from the comfort of your home. SAMI-Aid’s doctors are available for phone or video visits within minutes in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. SAMI-Aid also offers a Premium membership with access to two medical or behavioral health visits per month for just $79.99. The more severe and persistent the symptoms are, the more important it is to seek professional medical care as soon as possible. Anyone who is experiencing severe symptoms—such as a high fever, bloody vomit or stools, diarrhea lasting more than 3 days, dizziness, or signs of dehydration—needs emergency in-person medical attention.

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