Upset Stomach? Could it be a Stomach Virus or Food Poisoning?

It comes on suddenly, sometimes in the middle of the night. Your forehead is clammy, and your stomach feels like a rock. You start pleading with the universe not to vomit, but your words go unnoticed as you rocket out of bed and to your bathroom. You are sick, but is it something you ate (maybe the grocery store sushi?), or could it be a stomach bug? If you have a high fever, chest pain, difficulty breathing, or are vomiting blood, seek emergency treatment right away. Otherwise, if you’re feeling ill and have a fever and upset stomach, read on to understand the differences in symptoms between a stomach virus and food poisoning.

Stomach Virus (gastroenteritis)

Food Poisoning

Symptoms

Fever, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or constipation, abdominal cramps, joint stiffness, weight loss

Fever, vomiting, diarrhea, fatigue and malaise, muscle aches, headache, sweating. eye swelling, difficulty breathing, thirst

Causes

A Virus

A parasite, bacteria, or a virus

Time Between Exposure and Initial Symptoms

One to two days

Two to six hours

Is it Contagious?

Yes

Food poisoning caused by certain bacteria, viruses, or parasites is contagious; when caused by chemicals or toxins found in the food, it is not contagious

Extreme Risks

There is no effective treatment for viral enteritis; for children, the elderly, and immunocompromised adults, it could be deadly, so prevention is crucial

The most common food poisoning risk factor is dehydration, however for infants, seniors, and immunocompromised adults, severe dehydration may require hospitalization, and in the most severe cases, dehydration can be fatal

How to Prevent Viral Enteritis

Protecting yourself from a stomach virus is similar to the techniques you should be following to protect yourself from COVID-19. Wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least twenty seconds, avoid touching your face, minimize exposure to people with symptoms, or who have been exposed to the virus.

How to Avoid Food Poisoning

While the symptoms of a viral infection and food poisoning are similar, not surprisingly, the preventive measures are different. When cooking, especially with raw meat, seafood, and eggs, keep your food preparation area and equipment clean. Cook meat and seafood thoroughly to recommended temperatures, keep perishable foods refrigerated and do not consume food items that have passed their expiration date. If an item smells, looks, or tastes funny, throw it out.

Types of Food Poisoning

There are over 250 types of foodborne illnesses that can be categorized as having one of three causes:

  • Bacteria that enter the body through contaminated food, such as:
    • Salmonella
    • Shigella
    • Listeria
    • coli
    • Campylobacter jejuni
    • Staphylococcus aureus (staph)
  • Viruses such as:
    • Norovirus
    • Hepatitis A
  • Parasites such as:
    • Giardia duodenalis
    • Cryptosporidium parvum
    • Trichinella spiralis
    • Taenia saginata
    • Taenia solium
    • Cyclospora cayetanensis
    • Toxoplasma gondii

When to See Your Doctor

Do not feel the pressure to diagnose the cause of your symptoms. Adults should contact their doctor when experiencing viral enteritis—or possibly food poisoning—symptoms if:

  • You can’t keep any liquids down for 24 hours
  • You’ve been vomiting for over two days
  • You have a fever over 104 degrees Fahrenheit
  • There is blood in your vomit or bowel movements
  • You are experiencing signs of dehydration, which include excessive thirst, dry mouth, weakness, dizziness, lightheadedness, deep yellow urine, or little to no urine

If you are a parent and your child is experiencing any of the following, contact your doctor right away:

  • A fever of 102 degrees Fahrenheit or higher
  • Lethargy or irritability
  • Extreme pain or discomfort
  • Bloody diarrhea
  • Dehydration

For most people who contract viral enteritis or food poisoning, the symptoms—though terribly uncomfortable, will pass. Still, if you have any concerns over your symptoms or escalate into the noted severe warning signs, contact your doctor. They will determine if a telemedicine or in-person appointment is best to provide a diagnosis and treatment plan.

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