What Is the Difference Between Stomach Virus & Food Poisoning?

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You feel a twitch in your stomach. Then another. Pretty soon, you're stuck in the bathroom with diarrhea and vomiting that seem to go on forever. It's obvious there's something wrong, but how do you know if your misery is caused by a viral infection or by the semi-green meat you had for lunch? The symptoms between the two afflictions are similar, but with some detective work you may be able to pin down exactly what's going on in your stomach.

Stomach Virus Basics

The affliction commonly known as stomach flu or stomach virus is actually viral gastroenteritis. It is contracted after contact with a virus such as adenovirus, astrovirus, norovirus or rotavirus. This intestinal infection is usually minor, and people who are otherwise healthy tend to recover with no complications within one to 10 days.

Stomach Virus Symptoms

Symptoms of a stomach virus don't appear immediately after eating a certain food; they can take several days to develop after you're exposed to the virus. A stomach virus is characterized by many different symptoms, and not every patient will experience all of them. Some of the most common symptoms are diarrhea that does not contain blood, flatulence, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, muscle aches and a low-grade fever.

Should You Visit Your Doctor?

There's not much that can be done about viral gastroenteritis; it will pass in time, so the best thing to do is to simply let it run its course. However, if you develop a high fever, notice blood in your stool or vomit, or suddenly get much worse, it's time to visit your doctor. Your condition may be more serious than a simple case of the stomach flu. Also see your doctor if you can't keep any fluids down for more than 24 hours or start to experience symptoms of dehydration.

Food Poisoning Basics

Food poisoning occurs when you ingest something contaminated with infectious organisms. Viruses, bacteria and parasites are the common offenders. Food poisoning ranges from very minor to potentially lethal depending on the type of contamination and your overall health.

Food Poisoning Symptoms

The symptoms of food poisoning are similar to those of viral gastroenteritis, and the two are often confused. Food poisoning also involves nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, flatulence, low fever and abdominal pain and cramping. Food poisoning may also involve weakness and shakiness, and occasionally fainting.

Should you Visit Your Doctor?

Like viral gastroenteritis, food poisoning doesn't always require a visit to the doctor. However, if you suspect that this is the reason for your symptoms, it's better to be safe than sorry. If your symptoms persist for more than a few days or get suddenly worse, if your fever rises above 102 degrees Fahrenheit, you see blood in your stool or vomit, or if you develop signs of dehydration, make an appointment to see your doctor.

How to Tell the Difference

It's extremely difficult to tell the difference between a stomach virus and food poisoning at home. If you're concerned about your symptoms, or if you don't get better after a few days, see your doctor. He can run some tests to see if the cause of your symptoms is identifiable.

Your doctor will ask for a rundown of your symptoms, along with the specifics of when they began and how severe they have been. If you remember what you ate just before you got sick, that information can help your doctor determine what you are suffering from. If further testing is required, your doctor may take a blood sample to identify certain viruses or ask you for a stool sample to check for parasites.

Some food poisoning causes are never identified. Don't be surprised if your doctor sends you home with instructions to rest and drink plenty of fluids until your symptoms improve.

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