Not sure what you're dealing with since all three have commons symptoms? Globe Aware volunteers can read on to learn more about the symptoms of food poisoning, stomach flu, and COVID-19 and how to determine which condition you have.
Is This Food Poisoning, Stomach Flu, or COVID-19?
by Emily Cronkleton
March 17, 2022
If you are experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, you may wonder if the cause is food poisoning, stomach flu, or COVID-19. These conditions share similar symptoms, though there are some key differences between them.
Read on to learn more about the symptoms of food poisoning, stomach flu, and COVID-19 and how to determine which condition you have. You’ll also learn how to treat each condition, when to seek medical care, and how to test for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
How to tell if my symptoms are food poisoning, stomach flu, or COVID?
To determine what is causing your gastrointestinal symptoms, it’s important to consider factors such as severity, accompanying symptoms, and possible causes. You may need to take a test to get a diagnosis.
Typical food poisoning symptoms
Eating food contaminated with bacteria, viruses, or parasites can cause food poisoning.
Symptoms can occur within a few hours, days, or weeks of consuming contaminated food. They tend to be more severe than symptoms of the stomach flu.
Common food poisoning symptomsTrusted Source include:
- abdominal cramps
- loss of appetite
Usually, symptoms are mild to moderate and get better within a week, with or without treatment. However, severe and chronic (long-term) cases may require hospitalization.
Typical stomach flu symptoms
A viral infection causes the stomach flu, called viral gastroenteritis. Usually, symptoms occur 1 to 3 days after exposure to the virus and improve within 1 to 3 days.
Common symptomsTrusted Source of the stomach flu include:
- abdominal cramps
- loss of appetite
- weight loss
- muscle aches
- achy joints
As you can see, the stomach flu can give you many of the same symptoms as food poisoning, but with additional pain in the joints and muscles due to the viral infection.
Typical COVID-19 symptoms
People who develop COVID-19 from SARS-CoV-2 may have a wide variety of symptoms that are mild to severe. Usually, symptoms occur 2 to 14 days after exposure to the virus.
Gastrointestinal symptoms often occur during the early phase of COVID-19. They may appear before respiratory symptoms. Symptoms of COVID-19Trusted Source include:
- abdominal pain
- fever or chills
- muscle or body aches
- shortness of breath
- sore throat
- new loss of taste or smell
- congestion or runny nose
Unlike food poisoning or the stomach flu, COVID-19 usually causes respiratory symptoms as well as gastrointestinal. If you’ve developed a cough or are experiencing a lack of taste or smell, it’s a good idea to speak with your doctor and get tested for SARS-CoV-2.
Getting treatment for food poisoning or stomach flu during the COVID-19 pandemic
To treat mild to moderate food poisoning or stomach flu, there are several home remedies you can try.
Home remedies to treat food poisoning and stomach flu include:
- Staying hydrated. Symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea can lead to dehydration. Consume plenty of water and beverages with electrolytes, such as coconut water, fruit juice, and sports drinks.
- Using a heating pad. To alleviate abdominal pain and relax your stomach muscles, apply a heating pad to your stomach for 15 minutes at a time.
Consuming ginger and mint. Ginger and mint may help alleviate nausea. You can take the herbs in supplement form or drink them in tea.
- Drinking herbal teas. Drink licorice, fennel, and chamomile tea to calm and soothe your stomach.
If you have symptoms of dehydration, severe symptoms, or symptoms that do not improve within a few days, visit a healthcare professional.
Symptoms of dehydration include:
- decreased urination
- dry mouth, lips, or throat
- dizziness when standing
- extreme thirst
See a healthcare professional if you have severe symptoms such as:
- bloody diarrhea
- high fever (103°F or 39.4°C, or above)
- frequent vomiting, which can cause dehydration
- diarrhea that lasts longer than 3 days
If you’re concerned about visiting a doctor’s office or hospital due to the possibility of contracting SARS-CoV-2, you can take precautions to maximize your safety by:
- wearing a mask
- maintaining a distance of 6 feet
- using hand sanitizer regularly
- scheduling your appointment in the morning, since the waiting and exam rooms are likely to be the cleanest
Healthcare workers and staff are taking precautions as well, most of whom are fully vaccinated. Some precautions they may take include:
- regularly cleaning and disinfecting clinics
- spacing out appointments to minimize the number of people in the waiting room
- giving you the option to skip the waiting room altogether
- performing tests and other procedures in the exam room instead of having you visit multiple locations, in some cases
Getting tested for COVID-19
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)Trusted Source recommends getting tested if you experience COVID-19 symptoms or have been in close contact with a person with COVID-19.
A rapid self-test involving a nasal swab will provide quick results. Laboratory tests involving saliva or a nasal swab provide results within 1 to 3 days. Usually, laboratory tests are more accurate than self-tests.
While you’re waiting for the results of your test, it’s a good idea to stay at home, both to quarantine and to take care of yourself. At-home treatments for COVID-19 are similar to treatments for other viruses and include:
- getting plenty of rest
- staying hydrated
- taking prebiotics and probiotics to treat gastrointestinal symptoms
- taking acetaminophen to alleviate headaches, body aches, and fever
- applying an ice pack for 15 minutes at a time to reduce fever
Some symptoms of food poisoning, stomach flu, and COVID-19 are similar, which may make it tricky to determine which condition you have. In most cases, people can treat food poisoning or stomach flu by resting, staying hydrated, and using home remedies.
If your symptoms are severe or do not improve within a few days, make an appointment with a healthcare professional. They can provide you with an accurate diagnosis, determine if there are any underlying causes, and choose the best course of treatment.
If you think your symptoms are from COVID-19, follow the usual safety precautions and self-isolate. Take a test as soon as possible.
Medically reviewed by Elizabeth Thottacherry, MD — Written
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What You Need to Know About Food Poisoning, Its Causes, and Treatments
What is food poisoning?
Foodborne illness, more commonly referred to as food poisoning, is the result of eating contaminated, spoiled, or toxic food. The most common symptoms of food poisoning include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Although it’s quite uncomfortable, food poisoning isn’t unusual. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)Trusted Source, 48 million people in the United States (or around 1 out of 7) contract some form of food poisoning every year. Of those 48 million people, 128,000 are hospitalized.
Food poisoning symptoms
If you have food poisoning, chances are it won’t go undetected.
Symptoms can vary depending on the source of the infection.
Common cases of food poisoning will typically include a few of the following symptoms:
loss of appetite
Symptoms of potentially life threatening food poisoning include:
diarrhea that lasts for more than 3 days
a fever higher than 102°F (38.9°C)
difficulty seeing or speaking
symptoms of severe dehydration, which may include dry mouth, passing little to no urine, and difficulty keeping fluids down
If you experience any of these symptoms, contact a doctor or seek medical treatment immediately.
How long does food poisoning last?
The length of time it takes for symptoms to appear depends on the source of the infection, but it can range from as little as 30 minutesTrusted Source to as long as 8 weeksTrusted Source.
With or without treatment, most cases will resolve in 1 week.
Causes of food poisoning
Most food poisoning can be traced to one of three major causes: bacteria, parasites, or viruses.
These pathogens can be found on almost all of the food humans eat. However, heat from cooking usually kills pathogens on food before it reaches our plate. Foods eaten raw are common sources of food poisoning because they don’t go through the cooking process.
Occasionally, food will come in contact with the organisms in fecal matter or vomit. This is most likely to occur when an ill person prepares food and doesn’t wash their hands before cooking.
Meat, eggs, and dairy products are frequently contaminated. Water may also be contaminated with organisms that cause illness.
Bacteria are by far the most common cause of food poisoning. Bacterial causes of food poisoning include:
E. coli, in particular Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC)
When thinking of dangerous bacteria, names such as E. coli and Salmonella come to mind for good reason.
Salmonella is the biggest bacterial causeTrusted Source of food poisoning cases in the United States. According to the CDCTrusted Source, an estimated 1,350,000 cases of food poisoning, including 26,500 hospitalizations, can be traced to salmonella infection each year.
Campylobacter and C. botulinum are two lesser-known and potentially lethal bacteria that can lurk in our food.
Food poisoning caused by parasites isn’t as common as food poisoning caused by bacteria, but parasites that spread through food are still very dangerous. They include:
various tapeworms, such as:
Taenia saginata (beef tapeworm)
Taenia solium (pork tapeworm)
Diphyllobothrium latum (fish tapeworm)
Ascaris lumbricoides, a type of roundworm
flukes (flatworms), such as Opisthorchiidae (liver fluke) and Paragonimus (lung fluke)
pinworms, or Enterobiasis
According to the CDCTrusted Source, toxoplasmosis is a leading cause of death attributed to food poisoning in the United States. Toxoplasma gondii is also found in cat litter boxes.
Parasites can live in your digestive tract and go undetected for years. People with weakened immune systems and pregnant people are at risk of more serious side effects if certain parasites take up residence in their intestines.
Food poisoning can also be caused by a virus, such as:
norovirus, which is sometimes known as Norwalk virus
hepatitis A virus
The norovirus causes 19 to 21 million casesTrusted Source of vomiting and diarrhea in the United States each year. In rare cases, it can be fatal. Other viruses bring on similar symptoms, but they’re less common.
The virus that causes the liver condition hepatitis A can also be transmitted through food.