Stomach flu or food poisoning: How do you know?
“I’ve been sick as a dog!”
“I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy!”
“I just can’t keep anything down.”
If you’ve found yourself uttering any or all of the above phrases, chances are you’ve faced a recent battle with the dreaded “stomach flu.” Or…was it food poisoning?
How do you know the difference?
First, some definitions. The “stomach flu,” also known as infectious gastroenteritis, isn’t related to influenza – the “flu” that lays up millions of individuals who haven’t had their flu shots each winter. Infectious gastroenteritis, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, is an inflammation of the stomach and intestines, caused by other common contagious viruses, such as norovirus and rotavirus.
While influenza causes upper respiratory distress like coughing, congestion and fever, gastroenteritis brings with it the unpleasantness of nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Both conditions are highly contagious and easy to pass from family member to family member.
Food poisoning, on the other hand, isn’t contagious from person-to-person. Also known as “foodborne illness,” food poisoning is the result of consuming food or beverages that have been contaminated with one or more of a variety of disease-causing microbes – nasty things like salmonella and E. coli.
“Gastroenteritis and food poisoning have very similar symptoms,” says Dr. Timothy Buffey, an Advocate Medical Group family medicine physician at the Advocate BroMenn Family Health Clinic in Normal, Ill. “Both of them can cause diarrhea, vomiting and other gastrointestinal issues, as well as fever.”
The simplest way to figure out which condition is plaguing you may be to think back on what led to you becoming ill.
“Did your symptoms come about soon after eating? Are others who ate the same food becoming ill? This might indicate that the illness is foodborne,” Dr. Buffey says. “Or have you been around someone else who has been sick, or in large public areas, like a cruise ship? This could mean that it’s a contagious virus that you’ve picked up.”
Regardless of its origin, the good news, Dr. Buffey says, is that these types of illnesses don’t tend to stick around too long, although you may be miserable while it’s with you.
“The most important thing is to stay hydrated,” says Dr. Buffey. “Both gastroenteritis and food poisoning can cause you to become dehydrated very quickly. Force yourself to drink plenty of water or sports drinks that can help replenish lost electrolytes.”
Dr. Buffey advises seeking medical attention if you’re not better in three days, or if you’re sustaining a fever over 101 degrees for more than a couple of days. If you’re showing signs of severe dehydration (dark urine, lightheadedness, muscle cramping), neurological issues, or if you’re vomiting blood or noticing blood in your diarrhea, head to the closest emergency department.
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