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How do I know if it’s a stomach bug or food poisoning?

Last Modified: May 03, 2023

Family Medicine

Stomach bug

When tummy trouble hits, it’s very disruptive and, let’s face it, downright miserable. These uncomfortable episodes often leave us wondering what’s going on–is it a stomach bug or something I ate? We took our questions to Sara Herstad, DO, and Christopher “Heath” Gambrel, NP, Parkview Virtual Walk-In Clinics, to gain a better understanding of the germs that upset our bellies.

What are the similarities and differences between the major causes of sudden-onset stomach issues? 

For the sake of this conversation, we’ll focus on food poisoning and the “stomach bug,” which have similar causes in the United States and the majority of developed countries. Most people have these episodes as a result of touching contaminated surfaces or eating contaminated food. The majority of stomach bug and food poisoning events typically develop into symptoms around 24 hours from exposure. The exception is eating food that already contains toxins, in which case you would have symptoms within hours. 

What causes us to get a stomach bug? 

Stomach bugs are typically caused by viruses, the most common being norovirus, rotavirus, enteric adenovirus and astrovirus.

What are the causes of food poisoning? 

Food poisoning can be caused by bacteria, the most common being salmonella, campylobacter, vibrio, listeria and E. coli. 

How do the symptoms for each differ?

The symptoms are actually quite similar for both conditions, so they’re often treated the same. The most common symptoms are generalized abdominal cramping, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fatigue and possibly fever. The goal is to maintain hydration, limit symptoms and get the patient back to normal as quickly as possible.

It would be difficult to discern between the two, but it’s important to know that bloody diarrhea, a high fever and/or severe abdominal pain are not typical of either condition and would warrant further evaluation. 

Can I prevent catching a stomach bug? 

The best way to avoid a stomach bug is to wash your hands frequently, especially before eating or touching your face.

How to prevent food poisoning? 

You can prevent food poisoning by cooking foods thoroughly. Meats should be prepared to the proper temperatures, which is:

  • Pork and poultry – at least 165 degrees
  • Unperforated red meat – approximately 130 degrees
  • Ground, perforated or cut meat – 165 degrees

Adhering to these recommendations can help prevent surface bacteria from penetrating the inside of the meat.

How can I treat a stomach issue and when should I seek medical attention? 

The treatment recommendations for food poisoning and a stomach bug are one in the same. The keys are symptom, hydration, fever and pain management. To manage …

Abdominal pain – We recommend acetaminophen.

Nausea and vomiting – Healthcare providers will prescribe antiemetics like Zofran® (ondansetron) and promethazine, though you might want to try over-the-counter options like ginger supplements, doxylamine, Benadryl® or meclizine first.  

Diarrhea – Most providers will recommend the BRAT diet (bananas, rice, apple sauce and toast) and clear fluids. We also recommend over-the-counter medicine like IMODIUM® (loperamide) if the symptoms persist beyond a few days and there is no blood in the stool. There is conflicting data, but the consensus is to treat vomiting in order to maintain hydration but be conservative with diarrhea treatment to allow the virus to escape the body.

Once nausea, vomiting and diarrhea have been controlled, it’s highly recommended to maintain hydration by drinking electrolyte drinks like Pedialyte®. Pedialyte is the best rehydration drink available over the counter, followed by Liquid I.V., BODYARMOR, Gatorade® and water. Each of these have varying levels of electrolytes, but Pedialyte has the proper amount of sodium, potassium and chloride needed to adequately provide rehydration. If you have a heart or kidney issue, consult with your healthcare provider prior to consuming large quantities of electrolyte solutions. Avoid sugary drinks like orange juice, apple juice and soda.

If at any point fatigue becomes severe, you are lethargic or abdominal pain starts to localize to specific areas of the abdomen (for example, the right lower area), you should seek an evaluation by a medical professional. If you develop high fevers that will not come down, bloody stools, passing out or significantly decreased urine output, you should seek a medical evaluation.   

The takeaway

A stomach bug and food poisoning are both generally lumped into one category and treated the same. We typically diagnose them based off of symptoms, focus on symptom management and let the condition run its course. You will only need to seek additional care if the symptoms have been prolonged or become more severe.

A convenient care option

With the Virtual Walk-in Clinic, you can see a Parkview provider from your smartphone, tablet or computer and receive the same level of care as an in-person visit at a walk-in clinic. Our providers are available to treat and diagnose non-emergency medical issues, and if necessary, prescriptions are sent right to your pharmacy of choice. Virtual Walk-in Clinic video visits are open to anyone in Indiana or Ohio, even if you don’t currently have a Parkview provider.

To get started, log in to your MyChart account and select Virtual Walk-In Clinic from the menu. For the best visit experience, use the free MyChart mobile app, downloadable for Android or Apple products.

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