Commonly called the stomach flu, gastroenteritis is often confused with food poisoning, which causes similar symptoms. While both usually resolve without the need for medical intervention, certain symptoms can point toward serious complications. To better understand the difference between stomach flu and food poisoning, consider the following comparison.
Usually caused by the norovirus, enteric adenovirus, astrovirus or rotavirus, gastroenteritis results when a viral infection causes inflammation of the intestines. Although it can be acquired by eating tainted food, it is not the result of toxins, parasites or bacteria.
Food poisoning occurs when a person consumes food that contains an infectious organism, such as bacteria or parasites. Typically occurring during the food handling process, contamination can also result when food is left out too long or is incorrectly cooked.
Gastroenteritis and food poisoning can cause very similar symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, abdominal pain and cramps. While most cases resolve on their own, patients can be at risk of severe dehydration due to nausea.
When to see a doctor
According to the FDA, about 1 in 6 Americans contract a foodborne illness each year. Of these, about 128,000 require hospitalization to treat various symptoms. If you experience any of the following, visit your doctor.
- Frequent vomiting
- Inability to keep liquids down
- Bloody stools or bloody vomit
- Diarrhea that persists for longer than three days
- Severe abdominal cramping or extreme pain
- An oral temperature that exceeds 101.5 F (38.6 C)
- Muscle weakness
- Tingling in the arms
- Blurry vision
In some cases, severe nausea can prevent a person from drinking enough fluids. When this occurs, severe dehydration can quickly follow. Be sure to seek medical care if you or a loved one experiences any signs of severe dehydration, including dizziness, little or no urination, dry mouth, excessive thirst, severe weakness or lightheadedness.