(NEXSTAR) – While respiratory illnesses are getting a lot of attention right now (and for good reason), you may find yourself afflicted with a different problem: a stomach virus.
Gastroenteritis, often called the stomach flu, is very common, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with millions of cases reported each year. We also routinely hear warnings of outbreaks of listeria, E. coli, and salmonella, all of which can cause food poisoning.
How can you tell them apart?
The first big difference is that stomach flu is caused by a virus (norovirus, not influenza), while food poisoning is caused by bacteria in food that has not been properly cooked or refrigerated. But that’s not something that helps you tell the difference the moment you start to feel bad.
The symptoms are also confusingly similar: Diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, chills, fever and stomach pain are associated with both the stomach flu and food poisoning, according to the CDC.
The types of symptoms may not differ much, but their appearance does. While the viruses that cause stomach flu generally have an incubation period of one to two days, food poisoning is usually felt within a few hours.
“Most people don’t have any trouble thinking about what they just ate and realizing that maybe the egg salad wasn’t around for too long.” said Donald Ford, chairman of Family Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic..
If multiple people feel sick two to six hours after eating together, that’s a sign of food poisoning, Ford said. With the stomach flu, which can be spread from person to person, you may start to feel sick 12 to 48 hours after seeing someone infected.
With the stomach flu, most people start to feel better in one to three days, says the CDC.
For food poisoning, the CDC recommends seeing a doctor if you have severe symptomsincluding bloody diarrhea, fever over 102 degrees, frequent vomiting, dehydration, or symptoms lasting more than three days.
In both cases, the disease often runs its course on its own with rest and hydration.
Fluids are especially important, Ford said. “When your body is trying to get rid of what’s in there, it’s going to throw out the good with the bad. You are expelling a large amount of fluid along with the toxins that are making you sick. You have to be super aggressive to replace them.”