What's the Difference Between Food Poisoning and the Stomach Bug?

Published on January 20, 2020

food poisoning

What's the Difference Between Food Poisoning and the Stomach Bug? 

Your stomach is cramping, you’re throwing up, running a fever and shivering. When you have these symptoms, it’s possible that you ate something that didn’t agree with you or maybe you were around someone who was sick.

How can you tell if you have food poisoning or the stomach bug? The symptoms present themselves in a similar way but there are minor differences that can help you better understand your illness. Amra Nasir, MD, Medical Director of Adventist HealthCare Urgent Care, highlights the differences between the two illnesses.


There are numerous names for it, but it is commonly known as the stomach bug or stomach flu. “Although often referred to as a flu, it isn’t actually influenza, but rather the norovirus,” says Dr. Nasir. “The norovirus has numerous strands and once you have been sick, immunity to that strand only lasts a short time.” The symptoms of the norovirus are present anywhere from 12 to 48 hours after the initial exposure to the virus. Symptoms may include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Fever
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Stomach cramps
  • Joint stiffness
  • Weight loss

Symptoms should subside within two to three days. Occasionally, symptoms will last longer. If they do, contact your doctor to ensure it is not another illness disguising itself as the stomach bug.


There are numerous ways you can contract the virus. This can happen by eating food that someone with the virus has prepared, sharing food or drinks, touching something that has the virus or by being in direct contact with the sick person. The norovirus is very contagious and spreads easily so it’s important to disinfect if you or someone else in your home has the virus to prevent the spread.

The spread of the virus can be prevented if the correct precautions are taken such as:

  • Wash your hands after the bathroom, changing a diaper, eating, preparing or handling food and before giving or taking medicine.
  • Handle and prepare food safely and correctly. Keep those who are sick out of the kitchen.
  • Don’t prepare foods or care for others when you are sick. Stay home and rest until the virus has left your body.
  • Clean and disinfect surfaces that the sick person has contaminated. Use a household bleach cleaner to kill the germs so others are not exposed to the virus.
  • Immediately wash laundry that has been contaminated with vomit or stool of the infected person. Use rubber or disposable gloves to touch the items and thoroughly wash your hands afterward.


When you are sick with the stomach bug, it is best to “rest, stay home, drink plenty of fluids to keep from becoming dehydrated and stick to eating bland foods like bananas, rice, cereals, bread and crackers,” adds Dr. Nasir. “Avoid dairy for a few days after feeling better as it could upset your stomach.”


Food poisoning can occur anywhere from hours to a few days after eating contaminated food. This can be caused by bacteria, parasites or viruses. “There are multiple strands of food poisoning but two of the most common types are Salmonella and E. coli,” explains Dr. Nasir. Symptoms may include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Fever
  • Vomiting
  • Chills
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches
  • Sweating
  • Stomach cramps


Dr. Nasir says, “symptoms typically get better within two days, but one of the easiest ways to know if your illness is caused by food poisoning is if other people that ate the same food are ill too.” Fortunately, food poisoning is not contagious, but there are several ways it can happen by consuming:

  • Undercooked or raw meat
  • Raw eggs
  • Raw fish or oysters
  • Unpasteurized cheese
  • Poorly washed fruits or vegetables
  • Contaminated water, milk or juice
  • Cross contamination


Like the stomach bug, when recovering from food poisoning, stay home, rest, drink plenty of fluids to keep you from becoming dehydrated and stick to eating bland foods like bananas, rice, cereals, bread and crackers. It is also best to avoid dairy for a few days after feeling better as it’s possible it could upset your stomach. Contact your doctor if your symptoms do not improve after a couple days or they are getting worse.

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