A viral infection that attacks the digestive system is commonly called a stomach virus.
People sometimes call the illness a ‘stomach flu, although this name is misleading, as influenza attacks the respiratory system. A stomach virus can also be known as viral gastroenteritis.
Different strains of the virus exist. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most common trusted Source cause in the United States is norovirus.
Food poisoning, on the other hand, describes the ingestion of contaminated food. Bacteria, viruses or less commonly parasites can enter the body and cause symptoms of gastroenteritis through food that has spoiled, been unhygienically prepared or contaminated in any other way.
Stomach viruses are highly contagious and can spread quickly. People infected with a stomach virus are contagious from the moment they begin feeling ill and also for the first few days after they recover.
A stomach virus can spread in several different ways:
The virus also inhabits the vomit and stools of people who have the infection.
Cross-contamination is often the cause of food poisoning, during which harmful organisms transfer from one surface to another. Uncooked and ready-to-eat foods, such as salads, are particularly at risk of contamination.
Each year, approximately 48 million people in the United States experience a bout of food poisoning.
Bacteria can grow rapidly when a range of foods, including meats, dairy products, and sauces, are not kept at the right temperature. Bacteria and other harmful organisms produce poisonous substances that can cause inflammation of the intestines when eaten.
Contamination can also occur at home if raw meat is not handled or cooked properly.
Salmonella and E. coli are two common types of bacteria linked to food poisoning.
The symptoms of stomach viruses and food poisoning are very similar but there can be some differences.
The symptoms of a stomach virus include:
A stomach virus does not usually cause bloody stools. Stools that contain blood could signal a more serious infection.
These symptoms often last 3-4 days but can last for up to 14 days.
Symptoms of food poisoning can occur within hours of eating. People may experience:
Sickness from food poisoning can last from a few hours to several days.
People can usually suspect food poisoning if they ate unrefrigerated food or other individuals who consumed the same food are experiencing similar symptoms.
Salads, raw or undercooked poultry, eggs, seafood, and other dairy-based products are high-risk foods for food poisoning.
There is no single method for diagnosing a stomach virus. A doctor will likely base a diagnosis on the presenting symptoms alone.
A rapid stool test can be used to detect the rotavirus or norovirus but it is not readily available at most clinics. There are no quick tests for other viruses. A stool sample can also be used to rule out bacterial or parasitic infection.
Diagnosing food poisoning can be difficult, especially if you cannot identify the particular cause. Stool tests may be able to identify the disease-causing pathogen. MEDICAL NEWS TODAY NEWSLETTERStay in the know. Get our free daily newsletter
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Treatment depends on the organism causing the infection.
Supportive therapy that includes increased hydration, rest, electrolyte replenishment, and medication for fever, are usually all that’s needed for viral illnesses. This is because viruses do not respond to antibiotics and simply need to run their course.
If it is determined that a bacteria, like Salmonella, is causing the symptoms, an antibiotic may be prescribed. For parasites, anti-parasitic medications may be available.
There are a few steps people can take at home to aid recovery from a stomach virus or food poisoning.
People should be cautious of taking over-the-counter (OTC) medications, unless advised by a healthcare provider, as some can worsen the infection. Even anti-diarrhea medications can make the situation worse in some cases.
Gastroenteritis will typically resolve within a few days or less without medication. However, hydration is vital to a speedy recovery and prevention of complications.
People should seek medical attention if they have have any of the following symptoms:
The CDC estimate that norovirus causes 19 to 21 million illnesses each year. The following preventive measures can help reduce the risk of catching a stomach virus.
There is a vaccination available in some countries that counters certain stomach viruses. The vaccine can be effective in helping to prevent severe symptoms of the virus when given to children in the first year of their life.
People can help prevent food poisoning by ensuring that meats, salads, dressings, and other foods are stored at the right temperature. Do not eat food that has been left out of storage for more than 2 hours.
It is important that people wash their hands when handling any raw meat. They should also make sure to cook it thoroughly, and to avoid eating raw meat, raw eggs, or sauces made with raw eggs. During picnics or parties, food that should be refrigerated should be kept on ice.
People should also be careful when eating in restaurants or other unfamiliar environments.