Food poisoning or stomach bugs are common gastrointestinal illnesses that affect millions globally each year. In fact, according to a survey done by the National Library of Medicine in 2021, every year around 7.69% of people experience foodborne diseases, and 7.5% of annual deaths are caused by foodborne illnesses in the world. While they share some commonalities in symptoms, their causes, treatments, and precautions differ. Let’s learn the characteristics of both conditions, their causes, symptoms and most importantly how to prevent them.

Understanding Stomach Virus vs. Food Poisoning

It is tough to determine whether you have a stomach virus or food poisoning as similar symptoms and causes characterise both. However, several key differences set both these ailments apart. Stomach bug or virus is another term for viral gastroenteritis, a condition that results in inflammation of your gut, including your stomach and intestines. On the other hand, food poisoning is brought about by the consumption of contaminated food and water. Food poisoning symptoms can appear within hours after eating contaminated food, making it a quicker onset than most stomach viruses. There are about 250 foodborne diseases that have been identified over the years. The most common foodborne germs are E.coli and salmonella which you can get from food items like meat and poultry.

Causes

The two conditions are often mistaken for each other, but food poisoning and a stomach virus have distinct causes. The consumption of contaminated food, including undercooked meat and unwashed fruits and vegetables, causes food poisoning. Meanwhile, stomach flu is caused by various viruses such as norovirus, commonly spread through direct contact in crowded settings, but can also be transmitted via contaminated food and water.. Hence, it is essential to understand the causes of both diseases to maintain proper gut health.

Causes of Stomach Virus:

Coming into close contact with someone who is already sick is the most common way to contract a stomach virus. Touching any surface that was brought into contact with the stool, saliva, or vomit of an infected person can also result in the transmission of a stomach bug. Stomach bugs can also be caused by different types of viruses, the most common ones being: 

    • Rotavirus: A common cause of stomach flu, particularly found in newborns and young children, is rotavirus. It can be passed on by getting into contact with contaminated surfaces or the faeces of an infected person.
    • Norovirus: Stomach flu is frequently caused by norovirus. It is infectious and spreads quickly in crowded areas like schools and social gatherings where people interact closely and share food.
    • Astrovirus: Astrovirus infections are more common in young people, the elderly, and people with weak immune systems. It may be spread by contaminated food, drink, or contact with sick people. 
    • Adenovirus: Although they can affect people of any age, adenovirus infections are more prevalent in youngsters. Close contact with sick people or contaminated surfaces may spread the virus.

Causes of Food Poisoning:

Eating or drinking water infected by bacteria, certain viruses, or parasites, is what causes food poisoning. Bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus and Salmonella are the common causes of food poisoning. Meat that has been undercooked or infected may also result in food poisoning. Apart from meat, there are other food items which may lead to foodborne diseases like:

    • Unpasteurised dairy products that include raw milk, cheese and butter.
    • Eggs that are raw or undercooked.
    • Cold meats such as salami and ham.
    • Raw or lightly-cooked poultry such as chicken and turkey. 
    • Raw sprouts.
    • Contaminated water.
    • Undercooked rice 
    • Raw seafood.
    • Giardia, a parasite that thrives in contaminated food or water and can be transmitted between people, is another significant and often overlooked cause of food poisoning. 

Symptoms

Stomach flu and food poisoning do exhibit similarities in their symptoms but understanding each of them can be helpful in the identification and diagnosis of the respective disease. Here is a list of symptoms for both stomach flu and food poisoning.

Symptoms of Stomach Virus:

You may notice the symptoms mentioned below if you have a stomach bug: 

  • Loss of appetite.
  • Diarrhoea.
  • Stomach cramps and weakness.
  • Mild fever.
  • Headaches and dizziness.
  • Vomiting or nausea.
  • Muscle and joint aches.

After being exposed to the virus, stomach bug symptoms usually appear in about 12 to 48 hours. The stomach bug often goes away in a few days. However, the precise timing may vary depending on the particular virus that is producing your symptoms. Some infections may last for up to 2 weeks.

Symptoms of Food Poisoning:

The symptoms of food poisoning are more common than that of stomach flu. Research suggests that approximately  48 million people experience food poisoning each year.  Food poisoning can cause moderate to extremely severe symptoms, and they typically manifest more quickly than stomach viruses, often within hours of consuming contaminated food The common symptoms include body aches, abdominal pains, vomiting and fatigue. Since each bacteria produces different symptoms, here is a list of symptoms caused by the most common types of viruses or bacteria. 

  • Salmonella: It is found in undercooked poultry, raw eggs and sprouts and may cause headache, fever, abdominal cramps, and nausea.
  • Listeria: Typically found in soft cheeses and ready-to-eat meat, listeria may cause fever, tiredness and aches. 
  • E.coli: E.coli is a bacteria that may result in Diarrhoea and abdominal pain. It is mostly found in undercooked beef, contaminated water, unpasteurised juice and sprouts. 
  • Campylobacter: Found in raw poultry like chicken, duck and turkey, campylobacter is a type of bacteria that may lead to fever and nausea. 
  • Giardia: It can survive for long periods in various environments and can cause symptoms such as diarrhoea, gas, abdominal cramps and nausea.

Treatment

Managing symptoms and avoiding dehydration is the main objective while treating stomach flu or food poisoning. Getting adequate rest, and consuming easily digestible foods such as plain yoghurt are also recommended. Antibiotics are not effective against viruses and are usually only prescribed by doctors for certain severe cases of bacterial infections. For an accurate diagnosis and treatment recommendations, it is imperative to consult a healthcare professional.

Treatment of Stomach Virus:

Stomach virus can easily be treated at home. The best course of action is to just give yourself some time to relax and get over the infection. Keeping yourself hydrated and avoiding sugary drinks is a great way to replenish yourself.  Drinking coconut water is also beneficial as it provides a natural supply of electrolytes. You may also incorporate bland and easily digestible foods in your diet such as:

  • Vegetables like potatoes and cucumbers.
  • Fresh yoghurt (if you are sensitive to lactose or have lactose intolerance, choose a lactose-free yoghurt).
  • Fruits such as apples and bananas.
  • Cereal.
  • Whole grains.

If your illness is severe, it becomes necessary to avoid caffeine, alcohol, and dairy products as well as fatty foods till the time your symptoms vanish. If the symptoms persist for more than 10 days, it is best to seek medical help, but if your symptoms are severe, you should seek medical help immediately.

Treatment of Food Poisoning:

The treatment of food poisoning is determined by the specific bacteria or parasite involved and the severity of symptoms. Although illness might last longer, food poisoning usually goes away in a few days. As part of treatment, you may need to take antibiotics or anti-parasitic medications prescribed by a doctor and consume adequate fluids. A minor case of food poisoning could be effectively treated with rest and fever-reducing medications. In the case of a severe illness, you may require a hospital visit to undergo intravenous fluid hydration. Your doctor could recommend an antibiotic if you have severe bacterial food poisoning.

Prevention

Here are a few tips that can help you prevent stomach virus and food poisoning.

Prevention of Stomach Virus

The possibility of catching a stomach virus can be decreased by taking the following precautions:

  • Maintaining good hand hygiene: People should constantly wash their hands with soap and water, particularly before or after eating, using the restroom, or changing diapers.
  • Precautions in the kitchen: You can make sure to properly rinse fruits and vegetables before cooking. Washing hands before and after cooking is also a great measure to prevent the likelihood of a stomach virus. 
  • Cleaning areas that may be contaminated: It is essential to clean all surfaces and disinfect them after vomiting or diarrhoea. 
  • Thorough laundry wash: Since the stomach virus quickly spreads from person to person, any clothing that has come into contact with faeces or vomit needs to be taken off and cleaned in hot water.
  • Staying home when sick: If you are suffering from stomach flu, it is best to relax at home until you feel better.

Prevention of Food Poisoning:

You may follow the steps mentioned below to avoid food poisoning:

  • Keep foods in the refrigerator within 2 hours after purchasing.
  • Make sure the seafood is adequately cooked.
  • Throw foods that look or smell stale.
  • Purchase canned food items from trusted and reputed brands only. 
  • Ensure that your hands and utensils are clean.
  • Use separate chopping boards and knives for meats.
  • Ensure that your child has received the Rotavirus vaccination (be aware that they may shed small amounts of the Rotavirus in their stool for several weeks after vaccination, so make sure that you wash your hands thoroughly after changing their nappies to prevent further spread). 
  • Certain vaccines are essential for you to take before travelling to certain countries. Hence, speaking to your doctor before travelling is also an important measure. 
  • Ensure that meats, salads and other foods are stored at the right temperature. 
  • Avoid consuming raw meat or eggs at any cost.

When to Consult a Doctor?

Both food poisoning and viral gastroenteritis have the potential to deteriorate to an extent where medical care is needed. But with the right rest, hydration and at-home medical care, most patients can effectively manage both diseases. 

If the symptoms persist for more than 10 days, it is best to seek medical help. You should also approach professional help immediately if you notice these symptoms:

  • Blood while vomiting or passing stool.
  • Inability to maintain fluid balance.
  • Recurring diarrhoea for more than three days.
  • If the temperature is more than 38°C.
  • Intense stomach ache.

Can a Telehealth Doctor Help?

A telehealth doctor may be of great help when suffering from food poisoning or the stomach flu. Telehealth professionals can evaluate symptoms, provide better tips, suggest appropriate over-the-counter medications for symptom relief and determine if further intervention is necessary. Telehealth doctor appointments are the best option if you require immediate guidance and support if you are not able to schedule an in-person appointment.

Food poisoning and stomach bugs are troublesome experiences that can disrupt day-to-day life. Understanding their causes, symptoms and preventive strategies is necessary for managing these conditions successfully. By implementing good hygiene measures and food safety habits, individuals can reduce the risk of contracting these gastrointestinal ailments and enjoy a healthier lifestyle.

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Disclaimer

This content is created for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the guidance of your doctor or other qualified health professional with any questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. For emergencies please immediately contact 000.