According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), even though the American food supply is among the safest in the world, there are about 48 million cases of foodborne illnesses (food poisoning) every year.
Which means around 1 in 6 Americans will come down with a foodborne illness annually. The FDA states that these illnesses result in an estimated 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths each year.
Many of the symptoms of food poisoning mimic those of the stomach flu, which makes it easy to mistake one for the other. Knowing the deviations between the two can help you plan your best course of action when you become ill and seek the proper treatment.
The common symptoms of the stomach flu are watery diarrhea, nausea and/or vomiting, abdominal cramps, fever, headaches and muscle/body aches. Body aches are typically not present in food poisoning cases. Food poisoning symptoms include abdominal pain (which can be fairly severe), loss of appetite, watery diarrhea, nausea and/or vomiting, fever, and fatigue.
Both food poisoning and the stomach flu will usually go away on their own with rest and by making sure you are replacing lost fluids. They will typically clear up within a day or two. Most of the time it is fine to just let your ailment run its course. However, if any of the following occur, you should call your doctor right away.
- There is blood in your stool or vomit.
- You cannot tolerate any fluids, even water.
- You are showing signs of dehydration such as dry mouth and throat, feeling dizzy when you stand, and have a decrease in urination.
- You experience vomiting for more than one day.
- You have chronic diarrhea (sizable, loose stools every one to two hours) that lasts longer than two days.
Paying attention to timing is one way to tell the difference between the two. The onset of food poisoning is usually abrupt. Symptoms will typically appear within two to 24 hours after consuming the contaminated food. The flu usually begins within one to 10 days after exposure to the illness.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the stomach flu, or gastroenteritis, is caused by viruses that invade the digestive system. It is spread by direct contact with an infected person or sharing eating utensils, food, or drinks with an infected person. And, on the other hand, food poisoning is caused by a toxin produced by bacteria in foods that are not stored or handled correctly. It is most likely that you have contracted food poisoning if you have recently eaten unrefrigerated or undercooked foods, or if people who ate the same food as you become ill as well.
The College of American Pathologists states that there are steps you can take to prevent the spread of stomach flu and to protect yourself from food poisoning. For the flu, practicing good hygiene like thorough and frequent hand washing and avoiding contact with people you know are ill will help to prevent spreading. As for preventing food poisoning, use common sense and follow appropriate food handling procedures. You can refer to Foodsafety.gov for detailed food handling information.
- Sharpening Your Food Safety Skills All Year Long (fillyourplate.org)
- 5 Tips for Summer Food Safety (fillyourplate.org)