Stomach Flu vs. Food Poisoning: Symptoms and Causes

Jeannette | Posted on December 27, 2022 
stomach flu vs food poisoning

You’re sick to your stomach as another wave of nausea sweeps over you, forcing you to use the restroom for the fourth time in an hour. When your stomach hurts, you likely pay little attention to why you need to use the restroom. You only worry about regaining your health. But where does the trouble come from? Two possible causes are food poisoning and the stomach bug, which is also called the stomach flu. Knowing if you have food poisoning or the stomach flu can help you determine what to do. So, knowing everything about stomach flu vs. food poisoning is important.

Distinguishing the two might be difficult as the symptoms are identical. Both of these can cause symptoms like nausea and diarrhea. Similarly, the causes of these two conditions could not be more different. Food containing hazardous organisms such as bacteria, viruses, or parasites can cause food poisoning. The virus causes stomach flu or viral gastroenteritis.

This article discusses stomach flu vs. food poisoning, including its symptoms, causes, diagnostic tests, and treatments.

Stomach Flu vs. Food Poisoning

In the following sections, let’s take a closer look into the causes, symptoms, and treatment of the two ailments.

Stomach Flu vs. food poisoning: Symptoms

The symptoms of both ailments, i.e., food poisoning and stomach flu, are similar, so it is essential to distinguish between them. The most significant distinction between a stomach bug and food poisoning is their onset:

  • If you begin to feel ill within a few hours of eating, it is likely because of food poisoning.
  • Stomach flu symptoms appear within two days of viral exposure.

The following table illustrates the symptoms of food poisoning vs. stomach flu:

Food Poisoning

Stomach Flu

Vomiting and nausea

Vomiting and nausea

Stomach pain and cramps

Stomach pain and cramps

Diarrhea (watery, bloody, or mucous-like)

Diarrhea (watery)


Fever and chills


Headaches and muscle aches

Food poisoning symptoms appear and disappear more quickly than the stomach flu. Although gastrointestinal symptoms typically last for two days, they might occasionally persist for longer. In contrast, the effects of food poisoning leave the body much more quickly.

Stomach Flu vs. food poisoning: Causes and Transmission

A virus causes stomach flu, most frequently norovirus, rotavirus, or adenovirus, and up to 21 million Americans contract it annually. Typically, the virus is transmitted by consuming contaminated food or liquids, touching contaminated surfaces and then bringing one’s hand to one’s mouth, or exchanging utensils with an infected person.

Infections caused by rotavirus and norovirus can rapidly spread stomach illness. The peak season for the infection in the US is October to April. Since the most common route to contract the virus is through contact with an infected individual, avoiding the contact is crucial. You can contract the virus by touching an object or surface someone infected has already touched.

Food poisoning refers to a collection of diseases that bacteria, viruses, or parasites can cause. Each year, over 48 million people in the US become unwell due to food poisoning caused by bacteria. Food poisoning typically occurs in one of two ways: when organisms from raw or undercooked meals cross-contaminate other foods or when an individual consumes raw or undercooked foods directly.

Anyone at any age can contract food poisoning, but infants, children, and the elderly are most susceptible. If you visit a less developed nation, you are more likely to become ill from the food there. It is important to consume fully-cooked meat, fish, and eggs, as well as water from a trustworthy source.

Gastrointestinal Disorders

Stomach Flu vs. food poisoning: Diagnosis and Treatment

The diagnosis of a stomach bug is based on the presenting symptoms. Stool tests can be used to determine if a person has rotavirus. Blood and imaging tests will be performed if another disease or health issue is suspected. Similarly, the diagnosis of food poisoning also includes taking a medical history, including the symptoms investigation and the previously eaten food.

Stomach flu vs. food poisoning treatment is quite similar. Suppose the virus that caused stomach flu is still active in your body. In that case, the most effective treatment is to drink extra fluids, balance electrolytes, rest as much as possible, and take over-the-counter fever-reducing medications. Most cases of stomach flu resolve within a few days; however, some individuals may experience symptoms for 10 days or longer.

Therapies for food poisoning rely on the organism that caused the illness and the severity of the symptoms. Food poisoning can continue for a few days, although most patients recover independently within a few days. To manage this condition, a physician can prescribe antibiotics and instruct the patient to consume extra fluids and electrolytes. In addition, some parasites transmitted by food can be treated with antiparasitic medications.

A Quick Recap of Food Poisoning vs. Stomach Flu

The below table presents important information for both ailments in a nutshell. Let’s take a glance at it and find out if it is either a stomach bug or food poisoning:


Stomach Bug

Food Poisoning

Symptoms ·       Vomiting and nausea

·       Stomach pain and cramps

·       Diarrhea (watery)

·       Fever and chills

·       Headaches and muscle aches

·       Vomiting and nausea

·       Stomach pain and cramps

·       Diarrhea (watery, bloody, or mucous-like)

·       Fever

·       Weakness

Onset of symptoms Symptoms appear after 2 days of the virus incubation period Symptoms appear on the same day of consuming contaminated food
How long do symptoms last? Symptoms last for a longer period Symptoms last for 1-2 days



Bacteria, viruses, or parasite

See Also: What Does A Gastroenterologist (GI) Do


When it comes to stomach flu vs. food poisoning, both cause nausea and vomiting, but they are two different conditions. Food poisoning is more prevalent than the stomach flu. Food poisoning occurs after consuming contaminated food that contains pathogens, parasites, or toxins. The norovirus causes most cases of stomach flu (viral gastroenteritis). Usually, all required to manage either illness at home is to remain hydrated, take medications, and get plenty of rest. By practicing proper hygiene and ensuring that food is prepared and served in a clean environment, you may prevent stomach bugs or food poisoning.

You should consult your primary care physician if your symptoms are severe or have persisted for an extended time. Your health is dependent on how effectively you maintain your digestive system.

Gastrointestinal (GI) doctors at Family Medicine Austin have access to many testing technologies, allowing them to diagnose GI-related disorders accurately. Our highly trained gastroenterologists utilize several blood tests and imaging techniques to rule out the most likely causes of the symptoms and determine what’s going on internally. Consult with a staff member by calling our offices or scheduling an online appointment immediately.

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