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Stomach Flu and Food Poisoning

For information on this topic from the Mayo Clinic, please click the following: Flu

Stomach flu and food poisoning are different ailments with different causes. However, many people confuse the two because the symptoms are so similar. Most people who get food poisoning attribute their symptoms of nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach pain to a sudden case of stomach flu, and vice versa. The disagreeable symptoms discourage you from eating until the problem clears up.

Stomach flu is usually caused by a viral infection in the digestive system, hence the medical name, viral gastroenteritis. To prevent stomach flu, you must avoid contact with the virus, which is not always easy to do.

Food poisoning is caused by bacteria that grow in food that is not handled or stored properly. Bacteria can grow rapidly when certain foods, especially meats, dairy products, and sauces are not handled properly during preparation or are kept at temperatures between 40o and 140 o. The bacteria produce a poison (toxin) that causes an acute inflammation of the intestines.

Suspect food poisoning when symptoms are shared by others who ate the same food or after eating unrefrigerated foods. Symptoms of food poisoning may not begin for 6 to 48 hours.


To prevent food poisoning:

  • Follow the 2-40-140 rule. Don't eat meats, dressing, salads or other foods that have been kept for more than two hours between 40º F and 140º F.
  • Be especially careful with large cooked meats like your holiday turkey, which require a long time to cool. Thick parts of the meat may stay over 40º F long enough to allow bacteria to grow.
  • Use a thermometer to check your refrigerator. It should be between 34º F and 40º F.
  • Defrost meats in the refrigerator or by microwaving, not on the kitchen counter.
  • Wash your hands, cutting boards, and counter tops frequently. After handling raw meats, especially chicken, wash your hands and utensils before preparing other foods.
  • Reheat meats to over 140º F for 10 minutes to destroy any bacteria. Even then, the toxin may not be destroyed.
  • Cook hamburger well done. Cook chicken until the juices run clear.
  • Cover meats and poultry during microwave cooking to heat the surface of the meat.
  • Do not eat raw eggs or sauces made with raw eggs.
  • Keep party foods on ice.
  • When you eat out, avoid rare and uncooked meats. Eat salad bar and deli items before they get warm.
  • Discard any cans or jars with bulging lids or leaks.

Home Treatment

  • Viral stomach flu will usually go away within 24 to 48 hours. Good home care can speed recovery.
  • Watch for and treat early signs of dehydration. Infants, children and older adults can quickly become dehydrated from diarrhea and vomiting.
  • If you suspect food poisoning, check with others who may have eaten the same food. If possible, save a sample of the food for analysis in case symptoms do not improve.