How do I know if I’ve got food poisoning or the stomach flu?
They symptoms are similar, but one illness is contagious and the other isn’t.
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When you start to throw up or have diarrhea, it can be tough to know if it was something you ate or something you caught. Both food poisoning and the stomach flu can present with similar symptoms.
“The key to recognizing food poisoning is that the onset of symptoms is related to a meal—often occurring within hours of ingesting the tainted food,” says Davis Liu, MD, a board-certified family doctor and author of The Thrifty Patient - Vital Insider Tips for Saving Money and Staying Healthy. Another good clue is to find out if anyone who ate with you and consumed the same dishes also got sick.
Regardless of the cause, symptoms of both should resolve themselves within a few days. During that time, the most important thing is to stay hydrated and nourished—taking in small amounts of food and liquids as tolerated.
“But if you experience dehydration, dizziness or bloody diarrhea—or if your overall symptoms last more than five days—you should go see your doctor,” says Liu.
You can pay attention to your body, without knowing exactly what's making you have nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, but if there is no fever, it's likely food poisoning, or an inflammation of the stomach and gastrointestinal track, often called "stomach flu", or a "stomach bug". Diagnosis of this is generally called "gastroenteritis", which just means it's inflammation and irritability of the G.I. tract. So, it can actually be from either cause; viral or bacterial, or from tainted food. The term is non-specific on cause.
If it's severe enough you can't hold down clear liquids for over 24 hours, and you're getting weak, not making urine, you might need to seek medical help. Sooner if pregnant or very debilitated. And stay away from people if possible, on the off-chance you might develop the fever the following day, and need to be tested for true flu.
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If you pay attention to your body's signals you should be able to tell the difference. Are you starting to feel run down, have problems concentrating, or feel overly warm or chilly when you'd normally feel comfortable? Is food starting to taste just a bit odd? You're probably getting the flu.
If, however, you were perfectly well at 10 pm but at 1:45 am you're yakking up your socks, it's probably food poisoning. That's what happened to me last Thursday night and Friday morning. Four days later I'm still at the "no thanks, I'll just have plain toast" stage.