What is the difference between a stomach virus and food poisoning?

Even though sometimes they are hard to tell apart when you get sharp stomachaches, there are several differences between having a stomach bug and food poisoning. When it is that time of the year when illnesses spread like a…well, virus, it is important to know what it is that you have in order to make educated decisions about it.

The cause

Let us begin with the causes of both.  A stomach virus attacks the intestines and is contagious.  This means that you can get it by contact with an infected person or with food or water that was contaminated with the virus. This usually happens when food has been stored for too long.  On the other hand, food poisoning happens when you eat cooked food that contains an infectious agent, such as bacteria, viruses, or other pathogens. 

The symptoms

 It is important to know that both a stomach virus and food poisoning could have these same symptoms:

  • Watery diarrhea
  • Fever
  • Nausea and/or vomiting

A stomach virus can also cause abdominal cramps, muscle aches, and headache.  Food poisoning will cause fatigue, loss of appetite, and severe abdominal pain. The only complication associated with a stomach bug is dehydration due to diarrhea.  However, food poisoning, besides dehydration, can bring some complications that can cause organ failure and even death. 

Symptoms of a stomach virus usually appear within two days, whereas food poisoning symptoms will show up within hours after consuming the contaminated food. 

Diagnosis and treatment

If a virus stomach is suspected, the doctor will take a stool sample and check for bugs.  If they see bacteria, it means it is not viral.  If the symptoms point towards food poisoning, besides a stool sample, the doctor will ask what foods you have consumed in the last hours, and they might take blood samples.


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