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Stomach Flu v. Food Poisoning

by Jeremy Holcombe

You’re violently ill. You can’t keep any food down, and you feel terrible. Was it something you ate? Or is it a bug that’s going around? What’s the difference between food poisoning and a stomach flu? Here are some of the ways you can tell, and what you can do to treat both.

Similar Ailments

To the casual observer, food poisoning and stomach flu look a lot alike. They have many of the same symptoms, such as vomiting, diarrhea, and fever. This then translates to things like dehydration and general loss of energy, due to not being able to keep food down. The main way to tell the difference is by looking at the circumstances surrounding the illness.

If you ate something you weren’t sure about a few hours before the symptoms began, then you likely have food poisoning. It can occur due to a variety of different bacteria or viruses in your food, such as salmonella, listeria, E. coli, or norovirus. The food may not have been cooked properly, or it may have passed its expiration date.

On the other hand, if more than one person ate the same thing, and only one person is sick, then it’s more likely stomach flu. Not a true influenza virus, it’s actually called acute gastroenteritis and is spread through germs in the air and on surfaces. If someone sneezes, then shakes your hand, or touches a doorknob that you yourself then touch, it can spread germs that lead to stomach flu.


Whatever you have, the real question is, what should you do about it? The main concern, with either illness, is avoiding dehydration. This can be a difficult proposition when everything you eat or drink keeps coming back up. Consume only clear liquids, such as water, apple juice (not fruit punch or anything with red dye), sports drinks, or broth.

Drink them slowly and steadily over time, rather than all at once, to increase the chances of their staying down. If you’re a diabetic, talk to your doctor to find out if you should have apple juice or sports drinks, and if so, in what quantities. If you still can’t keep anything down, or you start to show signs of dehydration, call a doctor immediately. They may need to hook you up to an IV to ensure you get enough electrolytes.

When you are able to keep food and liquids down, use the BRAT diet: Bananas, Rice, Apple sauce, and Toast. Saltine crackers can work as well. Once you start to feel better, then you can slowly work your way up to regular food again.


They say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It’s much better to be able to avoid stomach flu and food poisoning entirely, if at all possible. For the stomach flu, stay away from anyone else whom you know has the virus. Always wash your hands and disinfect hard surfaces such as counters and doorknobs. Also, get a flu shot if you can, for yourself and anyone else in your family.

For food poisoning, make sure your food is thoroughly cooked and properly refrigerated. And again, always wash your hands before cooking, and keep counters and utensils clean, to avoid the spread of contamination. Don’t mix raw foods, such as fruits and vegetables, with foods you intend to cook, such as meat or poultry. Don’t cut them with the same knife, or on the same cutting board.

If you do get either food poisoning or the stomach flu, and the symptoms last more than a day or two, go to a doctor. Neither illness is any fun, but if you’re careful about what you expose yourself to, you can avoid them both more easily and live a happier, healthier life.

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