Flu vs. Food Poisoning: Know the Difference

Whatever we eat, wherever we live, we all get sick sometimes. Diarrhea and nausea are so common that they usually just make us annoyed rather than scared; and more often than not, we can determin the culprit – that two-day old egg salad or a drink with cubes of ice made of untreated water. But sometimes it seems like everyone around us gets sick at the same time – we call it stomach flu.

The illness

The so-called “stomach flu” or “stomach bug” has nothing to do with real flu. The latter is caused by different strains of influenza virus, while the stomach variety (known as viral gastroenteritis) is due to such viruses as rotavius and noravirus (more virus science here). It is highly contagious and is spread by contact with a sick person, as well as through food and water. Symptoms usually develop after a day or two and last a couple of days.

And what about food poisoning? It is normally caused by bacteria (such as E. coli), as well as parisites, and is transmitted through contaminated food and drink (meat that has not been cooked properly, sushi with raw fish, unpasteurized milk, food that has been left out of the fridge for too long, etc.). Symptoms take only a few hours to develop and, just like with stomach bug, last two or three days.

It doesn’t help that in both cases the symptoms are virtually the same: diarrhea, cramps, nausea, vomiting, fever, and fatigue. And considering that it takes roughly the same time for both illnesses to run their course, it becomes really hard to distinguish between them.

The treatment

Always remember one basic biological fact: antibiotics only work against bacteria. They don’t work against viruses at all. So if you are reasonably sure you have a virus (stomach flu, in our case), there is no point taking antibiotics.

Antibiotics can work great in case of a food poisoning; however, they do have side effects, such as disrupting the intestinal bacterial flora, so unless you are feeling really bad (and have consulted a doctor), refrain from taking strong ones. Try to buy a gentler medicine, antibacterial or adsorbent (such as activated charcoal).

The most important thing you can do for your body if you have stomach flu (or food poisoning) is to hydrate properly. Diarrhea and not being able to eat makes us lose lots of liquid and necessary salts. Thus, make sure to drink 2-3 liters of water a day and buy oral rehydration salts at a pharmacy. Normally milk is suggested as a great source of salts, but dairy should not be consumed during diarrhea, since it can make it worse.

Other things to avoid are coffee, tea, and alcohol. In fact, while you are suffering from stomach flu, even if you can hold down food, eat only bland dishes: porridge, boiled vegetables and rice, apples, and bananas. Avoid fizzy drinks and spicy food. And get lots of rest!

And if you miss your tea and coffee, we advise you to make yourself a delicious cup of ginger tea instead. Ginger is known to improve digestion and reduce nausea. Just grate some ginger, boil it with water, wait for it to steep, and filter; drink three times a day.

It is hard to avoid catching stomach flu if people around you are sick. But if you are ill yourself, at least try not to infect others: stay at home for a few days, drink lots of water, and certainly go to a doctor if symptoms persist for three days or more.

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