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How to Know the Difference Between Stomach Flu and Food Poisoning

Everyone gets an upset stomach now and then, but when your stomach ache turns into a twisted take on Montezuma’s Revenge, then you may be dealing with either the stomach flu or possibly food poisoning. As Emily in The Devil Wears Prada said, “I’m just one stomach flu away from my goal weight.” But while some may joke that the weight loss is the only perk to having a stomach bug, it is obviously the wrong way to achieve healthy weight loss.

There’s a big difference in treating the stomach flu versus food poisoning, so it’s important to determine what you are experiencing. At Advance ER in Dallas, TX, our trained specialists know how to tell the difference between a stomach bug and food poisoning. “When you’re suffering from stomach upset and gastrointestinal distress, the symptoms can be very similar. But the right treatment can make a huge difference in recovery,” said Advance ER physician Dr. Rajesh Rao. “Viral gastroenteritis and bacterial, viral or parasitic food poisoning are all very different animals.”

Symptoms of Stomach Flu:

  • Fever
  • Chills & sweating
  • Stomach pain
  • Diarrhea – loose, watery stools
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Body aches
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Lack of energy
  • Congestion & sore throat

Symptoms of Food Poisoning:

  • Fever
  • Chills & sweating
  • Stomach cramps & pain – sometimes severe
  • Diarrhea – loose, watery stools
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting – sometimes severe
  • Fatigue
  • Lack of energy
  • Lack of appetite
  • Causes of Stomach Flu

The cause of stomach flu is most often from a virus that is contracted. Occasionally, the flu can be caused by some bacteria or a parasite, but most often a virus. It is easily spread through bodily fluids, stools and unclean hands and others can contract the flu by coming into contact with a sick person.

Causes of Food Poisoning

The causes of food poisoning are most often from contaminated food. If you became sick shortly after eating something, or if you know others got sick from the same food, then you can be reasonably confident that it is food poisoning. Cross-contamination of food can happen with improper food prep techniques, or food can become contaminated during the growing, shipping or production stages. Additionally, parasites, bacteria and toxins can cause food poisoning.

What Should I Do Now?

“If you have a gastrointestinal illness and are sick, you can come into Advance ER right away for treatment. If it is the flu, sometimes we can treat it with a medication that will reduce the amount of time that you are sick. If it is food poisoning, we may need to run tests, such as a stool sample, to pin down the cause so we can treat it,” said Dr. Rao.

Treatments for Gastrointestinal Upset

Most influenza and food poisoning will go away on its own, although getting prompt medical attention may help reduce downtime. Rehydration through an IV may be necessary if you have become severely dehydrated and can’t keep anything down. In severe cases, anti-vomiting or anti-diarrheal medications may be given.

Symptoms that Require Medical Intervention

If your stomach bug or food poisoning starts to show symptoms such as bloody diarrhea, bloody vomit, mucus diarrhea, severe cramping, diarrhea that lasts more than 3 days, severe pain, high fever, blurred vision, confusion, abdominal pain on the right side, muscle weakness or tingling arms, see a doctor right away.

The most common problem with a gastrointestinal condition is dehydration. When you can’t keep yourself hydrated because of the diarrhea and vomiting, you may need medical attention. Try to replace your fluids and electrolytes with a sports drink or mix that doesn’t have chemical additives. But if you show signs of dehydration, such as dark urine, excessive thirst and dizziness, and you are unable to hydrate yourself, seek medical help.

“At Advance ER, we have the IVs and the diagnostic equipment needed for this kind of situation, and we can monitor your condition to make sure you are on the road to recovery,” said Dr. Rao. “We will also check to make sure it is the flu or food poisoning because there are other conditions, such as appendicitis and gallbladder problems, that can mimic these symptoms in their early stage.”

High-Risk Patients

Some people are at a higher risk than others who suffer from influenza or food poisoning. You should consult with your physician right away if you are:


– Some viruses are very serious during pregnancy and need close monitoring to make sure the baby isn’t affected.

Infant or young child

– Since it is easy for little ones to become dehydrated, and since some bacteria are harmful, consult your pediatrician or go to the nearest ER.

Older adults

– May have a suppressed immune system and may need closer monitoring. Dehydration is also a concern.

Immunocompromised Patients

– People with an existing condition that compromises their immune systems may need additional care with their physicians or the nearest ER. Dehydration is also a concern.


Because pregnant women, infants, children, older adults and people with compromised immune systems can be adversely harmed by food poisoning, it is generally recommended that they avoid raw or uncooked food, such as seafood, shellfish or eggs; unpasteurized cheese, such as brie or feta; and undercooked foods, such as beef or poultry.

Careful food preparation techniques, such as keeping raw meat separate from other foods, including other meats, can help prevent food poisoning. Proper defrosting in the refrigerator, cooking to the proper temperature, and prompt putting away leftovers can also help in prevention. Wash your hands after handling each food and wash the cutting board and knife with hot water and soap after meat is cut.

Hand washing is the number one strategy against the flu. Become habitual about carefully washing with hot water and soap and keep hands away from mouth, eyes or nose. Learn to cough or sneeze in your arm or in a tissue. Get the flu shot each year. When you’re sick, stay home at least 24 hours after your fever breaks to keep from passing on germs.

Be prepared for any stomach emergency. Discover the closest Advance ER location to your home, school or work.