Is Your Stomach Ache a Bug or Food Poisoning?

We all have those days when our tummy’s don’t agree with us. But how do you know if you’ve just got the bug du jour or if you ate some bad seafood?

Better yet— how do you know when it’s time to guzzle some Pepto or hop in the car and see a doctor?

Let’s look at the differences, symptoms and ways to keep our bellies happy.

What is food poisoning?

Food poisoning is an illness that can cause nausea, vomiting or diarrhea.  It is caused by eating food that contains germs, such as bacteria, viruses or parasites.

Two examples of bacteria that are common causes of food poisoning are Salmonella and E. coli.

What is viral gastroenteritis?

Viral gastroenteritis is an infection that can cause diarrhea and vomiting.  It happens when a person’s stomach and intestines get infected with a virus.

How can germs get into food? 

Germs can get in food in different ways:

  • People who are sick can spread their germs to the food they cook.
  • Germs can live in or on food.
  • Germs from one food can get on another when the same cutting board or knife are used.

How do I get gastroenteritis?

People can get the infection if they:

  • Touch an infected person or surface with the virus on it, and then don’t wash their hands.
  • Eat foods or drink liquids with the virus in them.

What are the symptoms of each?

  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Belly pain (can be either but more common with food poisoning)
  • Diarrhea that can be watery or bloody
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fever (can be either but more common with viral gastroenteritis)
  • Headache or muscle aches (more common with gastroenteritis)

Is there anything I can do on my own to feel better?

Yes.  You can:

  • Drink plenty of fluids so you don’t get dehydrated
  • Avoid drinking juice or soda as this can make diarrhea worse
  • Eat small meals and avoid eating foods with a lot of fat or sugar
  • Do NOT take anti-diarrhea medicines as these can make the infection last longer

When should I call a doctor/nurse or seek medical care?

  • If you have severe belly pain
  • Cannot eat or drink and have symptoms of dehydration (tired, dizzy, confused)
  • Vomiting blood or have blood in your bowel movements

Do I need to have tests?

No.  Not usually but your doctor may want to check for dehydration or determine which bacteria or virus is causing your infection.  This may include:

  • Blood tests
  • Urine tests
  • Tests on a sample of your bowel movement

How is food poisoning treated?

Many people do not need any treatment because their symptoms will get better on their own.  Some individuals may need specific antibiotics or IV fluids depending on their medical history, risk factors, symptoms and clinical signs.

How is viral gastroenteritis treated?

Again, many people do not need any treatment because their symptoms will get better on their own.  Antibiotics are NOT indicated in viral diseases.  Some individuals may benefit from IV fluids.

How can these conditions be prevented?

Pay attention to food safety

Wash your hands after you change a diaper, go to the bathroom, blow your nose, touch animals/pets, take out the trash and always before you eat.

With a little care and good sense, many common germs can be avoided and both stomach bugs and food poisoning will leave you and your loved ones alone!