The Difference between Food Poisioning and Stomach Flu The Difference between Food Poisioning and Stomach Flu
U.S. Food and Drug Administration

The Differences Between Food Poisoning And Stomach Flu

The stomach holds a lot of power over the human body’s ability to function normally. When something goes wrong in our digestive system, a myriad of other bodily functions are affected and often inhibited. Treating the stomach issue immediately is crucial; the longer a stomach issue goes untreated, the more likely it is to lead to something more serious. However, many individuals struggle when trying to determine whether they are experiencing the stomach flu or a bad case of food poisoning. Understanding the differences between these two issues will help you when seeking medical attention or remedies.


Stomach flu and food poisoning may manifest themselves similarly in the stomach, but they are both two separate problems with distinct causes and treatment options. The stomach flu is often referred to as a "stomach bug." This is actually a misnomer that causes considerable confusion. The stomach flu is caused by a communicable virus that is passed amongst infected individuals. It is not caused by bacteria. The stomach flu virus attacks the intestines and causes severe symptoms that may last anywhere between 24 hours and several days.

Food poisoning, on the other hand, is not caused by human contact, but by consuming contaminated food. Food that contains bacteria such as E. Coli or parasites can cause food poisoning if the living organisms are ingested. Eating food that has spoiled, food that was not properly washed, or food that originated from an infected source can all lead to a case of food poisoning. Stomach flu and food poisoning may both be characterized by local outbreaks where many individuals become sick in a short period of time. However, it is important to remember that the stomach flu outbreak is caused by human contact while a food poisoning outbreak affects only those people who have eaten contaminated foods.


The symptoms of stomach flu and food poisoning are similar, and differentiating between the two can be difficult. Both conditions can cause:

Diarrhea Nausea Vomiting Stomach cramps Stomach aches Bloating Fever

The stomach flu, however, is typically characterized by muscle aches and a headache that accompany the stomach symptoms. The occurrence of these symptoms is less frequent in cases of food poisoning. Also, while symptoms of food poisoning can show up within hours after consuming contaminated food, the stomach flu typically has an incubation period of one or two days during which symptoms are not evident.

Diagnosis and Treatment

In order to accurately diagnosis your symptoms, a physician will usually take either a stool sample or a blood sample. The presence of bacteria or parasites is evidence of food poisoning. Your physician may also ask you questions about your recent diet, recent travel outside the country and any illness outbreaks at your school or place of business. Answering these questions will help your physician to eliminate one possibility or the other. Treatment for stomach flu and food poisoning is similar, though not identical. Rest and fluid replacement is necessary in both cases. Diarrhea and vomiting can cause severe dehydration, and replenishing lost fluids with water and broth is often recommended. Typically, stomach flu must run its course, though your physician may prescribe fever reducers and pain relievers. Serious food poisoning may require the use of antibiotics to kill dangerous bacteria.


Washing your hands regularly is the best way to prevent the contraction of a stomach flu virus. Because human contact is most likely unavoidable, carefully washing your hands several times a day is the only way to prevent the spread of the virus. Consumers should avoid sharing food, utensils, dishes, lip balm and cosmetics, or personal care items.

Preventing a bad case of food poisoning is a bit more difficult. Proper food preparation is very important. Foods that are intended to be served hot or cold but are served lukewarm instead can become breeding grounds for bacterial colonies. Food that is not carefully washed or cooked thoroughly can also be dangerous. Following cooking guidelines and keeping your food preparation areas disinfected will reduce the occurrence of food poisoning.

Stomach viruses and food poisoning can be very dangerous if not treated efficiently and correctly. Dehydration and infection can set in quickly if fluids are not replenished and, in the case of food poisoning, antibiotics are not taken regularly. Prevention methods will help keep you healthy and prevent you from having to deal with stomach issues and the complications that arise from them.