- The stomach flu and food poisoning can cause similar symptoms like vomiting, abdominal cramping, and diarrhoea.
- However, the stomach flu only lasts for a day or two whereas food poisoning may cause symptoms to linger for several days.
- Both the stomach flu and food poisoning can be treated through rest, eating bland foods, and staying hydrated.
- This article was medically reviewed by Jason R. McKnight, MD, MS, a family medicine physician and clinical assistant professor at Texas A&M College of Medicine.
- Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.
Both the stomach flu and food poisoning can leave you feeling miserable. But while the two conditions have similar symptoms, they have different causes and can last for different periods of time.
Here’s what you need to know about the differences between stomach flu and food poisoning and how to prevent the spread of either illness.
Difference in symptoms
The stomach flu and food poisoning can have similar symptoms, like:
- Abdominal cramps
However, the key difference between the two is how long they last. The stomach flu is usually a quick illness, with symptoms lasting one to two days, while food poisoning may last longer, says Karen Jubanyik, MD, associate professor at Yale University School of Medicine.
With the stomach flu, also known as gastroenteritis, you are contagious for about one to five days. The actual time you will experience symptoms is typically 24 to 48 hours. The viruses that cause gastroenteritis are more prevalent in the fall and winter, so that’s when cases of stomach flu tend to pop up.
By contrast, food poisoning is not more prevalent during certain months than others. Food poisoning, like the stomach flu, lasts only a day or so, but in some cases, certain symptoms, particularly diarrhoea, can linger for several days.
Difference in causes
The stomach flu is caused by a viral infection that leads to inflammation of the stomach and intestines. It is most common in children younger than five years old because their immune systems are not fully developed yet, says Anita Gorwara, MD, family medicine physician and medical director of urgent care at Providence Saint John’s Health Centre.
Norovirus, rotavirus, or adenovirus are typically the culprit of gastroenteritis, and spread through direct contact with an infected person or touching contaminated surfaces and then touching your face or putting your hands in your mouth.
On the other hand, food poisoning is caused by bacteria in food, most commonly meat that is undercooked, like chicken, or vegetables that have not been properly washed, like spinach, lettuce, or tomatoes.
Salmonella, campylobacter, and listeria are the major types of bacteria that can cause food poisoning.
- Children younger than five years old
- Adults age 65 and older
- People with weakened immune systems, like those living with cancer or kidney disease
- Pregnant women
Difference in treatments
In most cases, someone with either the stomach flu or food poisoning can recover at home without direct medical treatment, Gorwara says.
The stomach flu is viral, meaning it can not be treated with prescription antibiotics, which only treat bacterial infections. Food poisoning only requires antibiotics in severe cases. In some cases,over-the-counter medications, like Imodium or Pepto-Bismol, can help treat diarrhoea caused by food poisoning. Talk with your doctor before self-medicating, as some medications can prolong symptoms.
With either the stomach flu or food poisoning, the condition just needs to run its course, Gorwara says. But if you’re experiencing symptoms, there are ways to care for yourself at home, including:
- Avoiding solid food for a few hours if you’ve been vomiting. When you do try to eat, stick to bland foods, like saltine crackers, clear broth, or plain potatoes.
- Staying hydrated as much as possible. This can be hard if you’re feeling extremely nauseous. Try taking small, frequent sips of water or sucking on ice cubes instead of drinking large gulps.
- Avoiding certain foods and substances that are harder on your stomach, like dairy products, fatty foods, alcohol, or meals that are highly seasoned.
Dehydration is the most common complication of either stomach flu or food poisoning, and in severe cases should be treated in a hospital with intravenous (IV) fluids. Signs of dehydration that require medical attention include:
- Not being able to get out of bed
- For young children still in diapers, no wet diapers for three hours
The stomach flu is very contagious and it’s hard to prevent the spread of the illness once it is in your home, Gorwara says. Your best line of defence is frequent hand-washing with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds and disinfecting surfaces with a mixture of bleach and water or a disinfectant registered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Norovirus, one of the common causes of the stomach flu, can survive on surfaces and infect people for weeks. Therefore, it’s important to wash your hands after going to the grocery store, park, or anywhere else where you might have been exposed. You should also make sure to wash fruit and vegetables by scrubbing them under running water before consuming them in case an infected person came into contact with them at the grocery store.
Food poisoning cannot be spread from one person to another. However, more than one person can be affected at the same time if they consumed the same contaminated food.
Here are a few tips to prevent food poisoning:
- Wash your hands and food surfaces before preparing food
- Keep raw meat, poultry, and seafood separate from other foods you’re preparing and use different cutting boards
- Cook food to the optimal internal temperature
- 145 degrees Fahrenheit for whole cuts of beef, pork, veal, and lamb
- 160 degrees Fahrenheit for ground meats
- 165 degrees Fahrenheit for poultry, like chicken and turkey
- 145 degrees Fahrenheit for fish
- Refrigerate leftovers within two hours of cooking at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below
The stomach flu and food poisoning cause similar symptoms like vomiting, diarrhoea, and abdominal cramping. However, the stomach flu is caused by a viral infection and typically lasts one to two days. Meanwhile, food poisoning is the result of consuming bacteria-contaminated food and can last for several days.
Related articles from Health Reference:
- Stomach flu: 14 foods and drinks that are safe to consume
- You can’t sweat out a cold, and trying to could make it harder for you to recover
- How long do flu germs live on hard surfaces, fabric, and skin
- The 6 best drinks to soothe a sore throat and boost your immune system
- 5 humidifier benefits: How the portable device may reduce the spread of germs and improve your skin