Stomach Bug vs. Food Poisoning

We all know the horror of food poisoning: what looks like a delicious meal ends up sending you straight to bed for a day. Just the same, shaking the wrong hand can knock you down for a week with a “stomach bug”. But what’s the difference between the two? The answer seems pretty obvious, given their names… but when you’re bedridden and fighting waves of nausea, it can be hard to tell what your body is fighting.

What is a “Stomach Bug”?

“Stomach bug” is actually a nonspecific term we use to refer to any sort of condition involving vomiting or nausea. In reality, the “stomach bug” we’re dealing with is a common infection called Gastroenteritis. Gastroenteritis involves the inflammation and irritation of the stomach and intestines, which causes its tell-tale symptoms.

Symptoms of Gastroenteritis include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting or Nausea
  • Stomach Pains
  • Cramps
  • Fever
  • Headache

When suffering from a Stomach Bug, it’s common to find yourself dehydrated. As you can guess, this is due to the amount of purging your body is doing to fight the virus. If you experience symptoms of dehydration such as dry mouth, extreme thirst, lightheadedness, or dry skin, we advise you call a doctor or visit DOCS Urgent Care of Fairfield, Norwalk, or Bridgeport  for immediate attention.

What causes Gastroenteritis?

Gastroenteritis can be caused by:

Contact with someone suffering from Gastroenteritis

Consumption of contaminated food or water

Unwashed hands after using the bathroom, or changing a diaper

There are three viruses known to cause Gastroenteritis, known as adenovirus, rotavirus, and norovirus. Rotavirus is known as the most common cause of Gastroenteritis in children. Infants can be vaccinated to prevent this particular strain.

How is Gastroenteritis treated?

Unfortunately, a viral strain of Gastroenteritis cannot be treated with common antibiotics. In the case of a viral infection, the sickness will typically pass within 10 days without medication. To help your body fight the virus:

Drink lots of fluids. The biggests danger of Gastroenteritis is dehydration. While vomiting and suffering from diarrhea, your body is disposing of fluids more frequently than it can take them in. The most important thing you can do to prevent dehydration is–as the name implies–hydrate. Drinking water is good but, however, will not supply your body the electrolytes it needs. To best hydrate, it is best to drink 

electrolyte solutions (oral rehydration solutions). These can be purchased at your local pharmacy. Pedialyte, Gatorade, or other common sports drinks are cost-effective alternatives.

Avoid acidic drinks and milk. Milk is known to exacerbate stomach problems, and acidic drinks such as orange juice or coffee can cause stomach aches.

Don’t drink too fast. Every hear of the saying “too much of a good thing”? When suffering from Gastroenteritis, drinking too much water can actually induce vomiting, as the body may reject too much liquid at a given time. For children, we recommend a teaspoon of your chosen beverage every 4 to 5 minutes. Or, advise them to take small sips over time.

Introduce food slowly. Once you are able to keep down liquid, you are able to introduce small portions of bland food. Bananas, bread, rice, applesauce, and toast are good options for beginning the introduction to food again. And, once you can keep those foods down, you are able to slowly introduce meats and cooked vegetables–but be sure to keep portions of these small, until you’re certain they will not cause problems

Avoid fatty foods. Foods with too much fat, acid, spice, or fried foods are known to exacerbate symptoms.

Avoid over-the-counter medications. Time is the best medicine. When you or your child are sick, your best bet is to avoid medications. OTC medications, despite what you may believe, are not effective in treating Gastroenteritis and may worsen symptoms. It may be hard or uncomfortable to purge your body during the course of the illness, but it is your body’s way of rejecting the virus, and medication will only impede that process.

Medication has one exception: to combat fever. If your temperature is rising, acetaminophen or ibuprofen are good for bringing it back down. Other than that, avoid medication.

If you suffer from an autoimmune disease and contract Gastroenteritis, or experience any of the following symptoms, please seek immediate medical help:

  • Sunken eyes
  • Lightheadedness
  • Extreme thirst or dry mouth
  • Lack of normal skin elasticity
  • Fewer tears
  • Infrequent or less urination

How do I prevent Gastroenteritis?

Gastroenteritis is preventable in infants and children through two early Rotavirus vaccinations. In adults, it’s best to mind our habits to avoid getting ill:

Frequently wash your hands, especially after using the restroom and before handling food. If you are unable to access soap and water, hand sanitizer is a great substitution.

Don’t share utensils, plates, or towels. This one is sort of a no-brainer: if someone in your household is suffering from Gastroenteritis, avoid sharing common items with them. If necessary, wash and disinfect them before usage.

Don’t eat raw or undercooked food. Washing fruit and vegetables thoroughly also plays a part in preventing Gastroenteritis.

When traveling, avoid unbottled water. This includes tap water and ice cubes.

What is Food Poisoning?

While the symptoms may seem identical to Gastroenteritis, the condition itself is different. Food Poisoning is a food-borne disease caused by the ingestion of food containing a toxin, chemical, or infectious agent.

Symptoms of Food Poisoning include:

  • Abdominal cramps
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Weakness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Headaches
  • Mild fever

Like Gastroenteritis, sufferers of this disease are prone to dehydration. If you experience symptoms of dehydration such as dry mouth, extreme thirst, lightheadedness, or dry skin, we advise you call a doctor or visit DOCS Urgent Care for immediate attention.

What causes Food Poisoning?

Unlike Gastroenteritis, Food Poisoning is restricted to the ingestion of contagens. However, it can be caused by a wider range of sources. Bacteria, viruses, and parasites are all known to cause Food Poisoning.

  • Ingestion of poorly cooked or stored fish (Scombroid or Ciguatera)
  • Poorly cooked or raw rice (Bacillus cereus)
  • Meat stored in an environment that is too warm (Clostridium perfringens)
  • Handling of food without washing hands (Shigella)
  • Poorly cooked chicken or eggs (Salmonella)
  • Contaminated saltwater shellfish (Vibrio parahaemolyticus)
  • Contact during travel (E.coli)
  • Contaminated drinking water (Vibrio cholerae)
  • Or any number of parasites (Giardiasis, Amoebiasis, Trichinosis, etc.)


Food Poisoning can occur due to the presence of Bacteria, a Parasite, Viruses, Protozoans, or Prions. You are least likely to contract Protozoans or Prions, but they are contagens to be aware of.

How is Food Poisoning treated?

Food Poisoning can usually be treated at home. Most cases will resolve themselves within 24 hours. Much of the treatment for Food Poisoning is the same as Gastroenteritis. The crucial difference, however, comes from when you’re best advised to visit your nearest DOCS Urgent Care or the ER.

If you suffer from an autoimmune disease and contract Food Poisoning, please seek immediate medical attention. Food poisoning can be considered life threatening and requires immediate treatment when:

  • Blood in stool or urine
  • Fever higher than 101.5°F
  • Diarrhea that lasts longer than 72 hours
  • Severe dehydration (dry mouth, passing little urine, etc.)
  • Difficulty speaking or seeing
  • Repeated vomiting preventing replacement of fluids


How do I prevent Food Poisoning?

The simplest answer is to be mindful of what you eat, and how you prepare your food.

Wash your hands often. Wash hands before cooking or cleaning, and always after handling raw meat.

Clean dishes and utensils frequently, especially if they have had contact with raw meat, poultry, fish, or eggs.

Use a thermometer when cooking. It’s good to be mindful of the temperature you are cooking meat at, to avoid under-cooking. If you are using frozen foods, be sure to cook them for the full recommended time on the package.

Beef requires at least 160°F (71°C).

Poultry requires at least 165°F (73.8°C).

Fish requires at least 145°F (62.7°C).

Refrigerate perishable foods within 2 hours. Keep your fridge set to around 40°F (4.4°C), and your freezer at or below 0°F (-18°C).

Drink treated or chlorinated water. Do not drink water from streams or wells that are untreated.

Do not use foods that are: outdated, have a broken seal, unusual odor, or “bad” taste.

So what’s the difference?

The difference between the two is simple: time. Similar to a cold and flu, the major determining factor in what you’ve contracted lays in how long you have it. Typically, Food Poisoning will resolve itself within the span of 24 hours. Conversely, a “stomach bug” will span about 3 to 5 days.

In short, you’d be taking more time off of work from a stomach bug than food poisoning.