Is it Foodborne illness or the Stomach Flu?

Updated 9/15/2015

Written by Karen Dybus, Physician Assistant, Student Health Service

Have you been feeling ill all day? Is your stomach rumbling and churning followed by nausea, vomiting and non-stop diarrhea? Is what you are feeling caused by a virus or something you consumed? This article will help you tell the difference between foodborne illness and stomach flu and what you can do to treat it and prevent it from happening again.


What are the symptoms of Foodborne illness and Gastroenteritis (stomach flu)?

Foodborne illness and viral gastroenteritis, sometimes called the “stomach flu” are often confused because their symptoms are so similar. With both, you may experience nausea and vomiting, as well as diarrhea. The major difference is that foodborne illness occurs after ingesting infected food or water, whereas viral gastroenteritis occurs after being in contact with another infected person or contaminated food/water.

Foodborne illness tends to occur within a few hours of ingesting contaminated food or beverage, although it can take up to a day or longer. Infectious organisms such as bacteria or parasites, or their toxins, may contaminate food in any part of the food handling process, from incorrectly handling food to leaving foods unrefrigerated for a long a period of time, allows bacteria to grow and thrive. While the symptoms can come on suddenly, they usually resolve within a few days.

Gastroenteritis is characterized by nausea and/or vomiting, abdominal pain, cramps and diarrhea. It is also common to experience some general symptoms of illness such as low-grade fever and mild muscle aches or headache. Although sometimes called the “stomach flu,” gastroenteritis is not the same thing as influenza. With gastroenteritis, you won’t experience the respiratory symptoms that you do with “the flu.” Symptoms may resolve within a few days or up to a week.


How did I get this?

Foodborne illness comes from eating food that is contaminated with bacteria or parasites.  

Gastroenteritis is passed from person to person. It may occur if you eat a food or handle an object that an infected individual has contaminated. An example is drinking from the same cup when sharing a beverage or touching an infected towel or handrail. There are a number of viruses that can cause gastroenteritis and these viruses spread quickly and sweep through a community anywhere groups of people come together in close quarters.  Residence halls can be prime incubators for infected individuals to quickly spread the infection from person to person!


What do I do if I am feeling sick?

When you feel ill, it is not important to distinguish between gastroenteritis and foodborne illness. It is important to stay home and keep yourself hydrated with plenty of fluids. Drink water and slowly consume bland foods. Dehydration is a severe loss of water and essential salts and minerals that comes as a result of vomiting and diarrhea.  Signs of dehydration include excessive thirst, dry mouth, deep yellow urine or little to no urine production, and severe weakness, dizziness, or lightheadedness.  


Should I see a health care provider?

If you are generally healthy, you may be able to manage your condition by resting and increasing fluids to prevent dehydration.  However, if your vomiting prevents you from keeping fluids down for more than 24 hours or you’ve been vomiting for more than 2 days, you vomit blood, you have signs of dehydration, you have bloody diarrhea, you have extreme pain or abdominal cramping, you have difficulty speaking or swallowing, or experience double vision, and/or you have a persistent fever over 102 degrees F, you will want to see a healthcare provider at the student health service or your family physician.


How will I be diagnosed?

To diagnose gastroenteritis or foodborne illness, your healthcare provider will need to take a detailed history from you and ask about your symptoms. They may ask how long you’ve been sick, what are your symptoms, what have you recently eaten and if you have been exposed to other people with similar symptoms. Your healthcare provider may know of similar cases on campus or in your community.  Based on your symptoms, medical history and physical, your healthcare provider may conduct additional diagnostic tests such as a blood test, a stool culture or test, or a laboratory examination of your stool to check for parasites.


How will I be treated?

Your treatment will depend upon a number of factors.  First, it will depend on whether your provider thinks you have gastroenteritis or foodborne illness.  Gastroenteritis requires no specific medical treatment.  You don’t need an antibiotic, but self-care measures will help your body recover.  Drink fluids by taking small, frequent sips of water, clear soda (like ginger ale), clear broths, noncaffeinated sports drinks, or suck on ice chips.  You will want to let your stomach settle before eating again.  When you start eating (in a few hours to a day), be sure to ease back slowly beginning with bland, easily digestible foods:  crackers, plain toast, gelatin, bananas, chicken and rice. If you start to feel nauseous again, stop eating and begin again later.  Avoid dairy products, fatty, spicy, or fried foods, caffeine, alcohol and nicotine.  Get plenty of rest and avoid medications such as ibuprofen, as they may make your stomach more upset.

If you have certain kinds of bacterial or protozoan food-borne infections or if your symptoms are severe, your provider may prescribe antibiotics.  Additionally, you should engage in the self-care measures previously discussed.


How can I prevent this illness?

While it is not always possible to prevent gastroenteritis or foodborne illness, there are some things you can do to avoid exposure or lower your chances of getting or spreading infection.

To prevent viral gastroenteritis:

  1. Wash your hands with soap and/or use an alcohol based hand cleanser after you use the bathroom as well as before you eat
  2. Avoid sharing personal items such as eating utensils, glasses, plates, toothbrushes and even towels.
  3. Avoid close contact with individuals who are sick.  Be sure to disinfect hard services in your room by applying a chlorine bleach solution (1/2 cup bleach plus 1 gallon water)* if your roommate has been sick.

To prevent foodborne illness:

  1. Avoid raw, unpasteurized milk, or foods that contain it.
  2. Wash raw fruits and vegetables completely under cool running water before eating them.  
  3. If you are cooking, avoid cross-contamination of raw meat, fish, and poultry with other foods and be sure to cook these items thoroughly.
  4. Promptly refrigerate foods that are not being eaten.




Foodborne Illness

Caused by viruses

Caused by infectious bacteria, parasites, or toxins 

Causes watery (usually not bloody diarrhea), abdominal cramps and pain, nausea and/or vomiting, possible muscle aches or headache, & low grade fever

Causes watery & sometimes bloody diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and cramps, and possible fever

Starts within a few days of exposure

Can start within hours of eating food but may take longer

Symptoms can be mild to severe and last for a day or two but may persist up to 10 days

Lasts one to 10 days
Login to Edit