Stomach Flu vs. Food Poisoning: What Is the Difference?

  • Medical Author:
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

  • Medical Editor: John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP
    John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP

    John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP

    John P. Cunha, DO, is a U.S. board-certified Emergency Medicine Physician. Dr. Cunha's educational background includes a BS in Biology from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and a DO from the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences in Kansas City, MO. He completed residency training in Emergency Medicine at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark, New Jersey.

13 Natural Home Remedies for Stomach Flu Symptoms

  • Rest: Most people need to rest for a few days to let the illness work its course.
  • Heating pad: A heating pad may help relieve abdominal cramping.
  • Acetaminophen (Tylenol): Take for pain or fever. This is recommended over aspirin or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which can upset the stomach.

What is the difference between the stomach flu vs. food poisoning?

What is the stomach flu (viral gastroenteritis)?

  • People use the term "stomach flu" to refer to a feeling of being sick with unpleasant symptoms such as:
  • It can be hard to know exactly what is causing these symptoms. All of them can occur due to an infection and inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract (GI) most commonly a caused by a virus known as viral gastroenteritis. This condition is sometimes referred to as "stomach flu" or a "stomach bug." Even though both the "flu" (influenza) and viral gastroenteritis are illnesses caused by a virus, the "stomach flu" or "stomach bug" (viral gastroenteritis) is not related to the actual influenza (flu) virus.

What is food poisoning?

  • Food poisoning is more common than the stomach flu. It is a food-borne disease that causes symptoms and signs that are similar illness to the stomach flu.
  • Symptoms include:
  • This type of poisoning results when organisms (viruses, bacterium, parasites, or prions) or the toxins produced by the organisms, contaminate foods or beverages. This type of poisoning also is known as a food-borne illness or food-borne disease.

Are the stomach flu and food poisoning contagious, and how are they spread (transmitted)?

Is the stomach flu contagious, and how is it spread?

  • The stomach flu virus is contagious. This means that the virus, spread from person to person.
  • This "flu" is most common during the winter months (November to April in the US).
  • Direct contact with a person infected with a stomach bug can spread the disease, as can contact with stool or vomit from a person infected with the virus.
  • Outbreaks of the infection can occur in schools or toddler and child daycare settings. Other outbreaks have been reported on cruise ships (norovirus) and other places where people are gathered in close quarters (like dorms or military barracks).

Is food poisoning contagious, and can you get it from another person?

  • Most food poisoning is not contagious. You get it when you eat foods or drinks contaminated with bacterium, viruses, or fungus, for example:
    • Raw meats
    • Seafood and sushi
    • Some mushrooms

However, some forms of poisoning are spread through contact with infected bodily fluid (stool in particular-the "fecal-oral" route, which means a person has contaminated feces on their hand or hands, and then touches their mouth with the portion of the hand with the infected feces).

What is the difference between the causes of the stomach flu vs. food poisoning?

How do you get the stomach flu?

  • Viral gastroenteritis most often is caused by an infection with a virus.
  • Rotavirus infection is the leading cause of diarrhea in children worldwide, and it also infects people in nursing homes.
  • Another common virus type responsible for stomach flu are the noroviruses. Norovirus outbreaks have been reported in schools and on cruise ships.
  • Other causes are adenoviruses and Astrovirus.

How do you get food poisoning?

  • There are many different causes of food poisoning (more than 200).
  • Contamination can occur at many stages of food preparation such as harvesting, processing, storing, shipping, cooking, or serving.
  • Contamination can occur when food handlers do not properly clean their hands before working with or serving food (infection spread by the fecal-oral route).
  • Often, Escherichia coli (I), Staphylococcus are the types of bacterium that lead to the contamination of the food. Other bacterium that cause food poisoning are Campylobacter, Vibrio cholerae (that bacterium that causes cholera), Salmonella, Listeria, botulism, and Shigella. Some bacterium also produce toxins in the contaminated foods that cause the disease.
  • You can get this disease when you consume undercooked or raw meats, but it also has been reported after eating:
    • Raw and undercooked eggs
    • Unpasteurized cheeses
    • Raw fish or shellfish
    • Raw sprouts
    • Unpasteurized beverages
  • Drinking contaminated water with bacterium also can lead to this disease.
  • Vegetables and fruits also can be the source of poisoning if they have been contaminated while handling.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 1/18/2017

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