As winter ramps up across the country, so too will common seasonal illnesses. If you’re feeling under the weather in the stomach department — vomiting, diarrhea and other unpleasant symptoms — then you may be suffering from a virus. But food poisoning, typically caused by contaminated food, can cause the same symptoms as the stomach bug. How can you tell the difference, and when you should see a doctor? Here’s what you need to know.
A stomach virus is caused by just that: a virus. While it’s commonly referred to as the “stomach bug” or “stomach flu,” it’s actually caused by a specific virus that affects the gastrointestinal tract, not the same virus that causes the regular flu, which affects the respiratory tract.
After exposure to the stomach virus, symptoms will usually appear within 1-3 days. The most common type of stomach virus is the norovirus, which is composed of a group of similar viruses that attack the gastrointestinal tract. Children are common carriers, and it’s easily spread in close quarters like daycares, playgrounds and your home. Symptoms of the stomach virus include:
- Lack of energy
- Low-grade fever
- Loss of appetite
- Muscle aches
Stomach viruses are highly contagious and typically spread through contaminated food or water, or via contact with infected bodily fluids. Symptoms of a stomach virus can last anywhere from 24 hours to two weeks, depending on the severity. Typically, vomiting should stop after 48 hours, sometimes as little as a day, but diarrhea and other symptoms may last for up to 14 days.
Food poisoning is caused by eating food that has been contaminated by a parasite, bacteria or other toxin. Like the stomach virus, symptoms can include vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, a low fever, head pain and reduced appetite. Depending on the type of food poisoning, symptoms can appear anywhere from a few hours to several days after consuming contaminated food. Certain groups of people are more susceptible to food poisoning, such as pregnant women, elderly adults, and those with chronic health conditions that lower the immune system.
You can also be affected by food poisoning from eating food that has come in contact with raw, contaminated food like meats or eggs. Cooking food properly will kill most bacteria, but it’s possible to get food poisoning from contaminated food at any stage in the prep and serving process. Keep these safety tips in mind to prevent a bout of food poisoning:
- Wash your hands and cooking surfaces often, and clean as you go.
- Don’t leave dirty dishes or soiled hand towels lying around in the kitchen, especially if you’ve used them to handle raw meat and eggs.
- Separate raw meat and eggs from other foods, particularly ready-to-eat stuff like vegetables and fruit.
- Don’t leave frozen meats to thaw for extended periods of time. Instead, move them from the freezer to the refrigerator a day before to thaw them slowly and safely.
- Cook meat and eggs to appropriate temperatures.
- Ground meats to at least 145 degrees (160 degrees is better)
- Poultry and other birds to 165 degrees
- Fish and shellfish to 145 degrees
- Eggs to 160 degrees or until both yolk and egg white are firm
- Refrigerate perishable foods promptly; bacteria multiply at room temperature, so don’t leave cold food out for longer than two hours.
When to See a Doctor
Most cases of the stomach virus and food poisoning aren’t serious, even if they feel dire at the time. You can self-treat at home, usually, by taking some precautions. Vomiting and diarrhea remove a significant amount of water from your body, so you need to replenish this by drinking water or eating foods with a high water content when suffering from the stomach bug or food poisoning. You might find that sucking on ice can be a soothing way to replenish fluids. Include an electrolyte drink, such as low-sugar Gatorade or Powerade, or plain chicken broth when you’re rehydrating to replace lost sodium in your diet.
Though you may be unable to eat for a few hours without vomiting, try to ease yourself back into food after your stomach settles by eating bland foods, such as crackers. Foods that can irritate your stomach like spicy foods, caffeine and alcohol should be avoided until your nausea settles. Additionally, rest, a vital factor in any healing process, is also important when recovering from food poisoning or the stomach bug.
Whether you have food poisoning or a stomach bug, some symptoms warrant a doctor visit. If your stools or vomit is bloody, you’re unable to keep liquids down for over 24 hours or you feel that you’re suffering from dehydration, call your doctor. If you’re unsure whether you have a stomach virus or food poisoning, your doctor can run tests to determine the cause. There’s no cure or vaccine against a stomach virus — so antibiotics won’t help — but if there’s an underlying problem that can be treated with medicine, your doctor will let you know.