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Food Poisoning or Viral Gastroenteritis

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At some time in your life, you have experienced nausea and vomiting, diarrhea or abdominal cramps. You asked yourself, is it something I ate or do I have the stomach flu? It can be difficult to tell based on symptoms alone. Comparing these two gastrointestinal illnesses can help you differentiate whether you have food poisoning or viral gastroenteritis.

Causes and Transmission

Eating food contaminated with bacteria, such as Clostridium botulinum, salmonella and Escherichia coli, leads to food poisoning. The consumption of contaminated reef fish, like barracuda, grouper and snapper, causes ciguatera, the most commonly reported marine toxin disease in the world. (1)

Toxins in the organs and flesh of the puffer fish, if eaten, can result in food poisoning. Eating shellfish that feed on toxin-contaminated algae or wild and poisonous mushrooms, undercooked meats (especially poultry), unpasteurized cider, raw milk and unrefrigerated foods containing dairy products, are all ways to get food poisoning. (2)

Viral gastroenteritis, commonly called the stomach flu, is an intestinal infection caused by the rotaviruses and noroviruses. Children are usually infected when they put their fingers or other objects contaminated with the rotavirus in their mouths. Often, adults with a rotavirus will be asymptomatic and can unknowingly pass on the virus.

The noroviruses are spread through person to person contact and from ingesting contaminated food or water. Most often, the viruses associated with viral gastroenteritis are transmitted through the fecal-oral route. This happens when someone with the virus handles food you eat without washing his or her hands after using the toilet. (3)


In general, nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramping, diarrhea, head or muscle aches and fever are symptoms of food poisoning. However, there are specific symptoms associated with particular bacteria.

Signs of botulism include weakness, blurred vision, sensitivity to light, double vision, paralyzed eye nerves, difficulty speaking and swallowing, paralysis that spreads downward, respiratory failure and death.

Fever, chills and bloody diarrhea indicate food poisoning caused by salmonella, Shigella or Campylobacter jejuni. Hemorrhagic colitis is associated with E. coli poisoning. Within three days of eating food contaminated with Escherichia coli, a person experiences diarrhea with very little stool but a large amounts of blood.

The typical signs of fish poisoning are numbness or tingling around the mouth, trouble swallowing and difficulty speaking. Ciguatera causes itching, muscle and joint pain, slow heart rate and low blood pressure. Puffer fish poisoning can cause paralysis that moves upward, convulsions, respiratory failure and death. (2)

Watery, usually non-bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramps and pain, nausea, vomiting or both, occasional muscle aches or headache and a low grade fever are symptoms of viral gastroenteritis. (3)


The onset of food poisoning symptoms is 4 to 36 hours after eating contaminated food. Depending on the cause, the symptoms of viral gastroenteritis start within one to three days after you are infected. Symptoms range from mild to severe and usually last a day or two. Occasionally, symptoms can persist for up to 10 days.


(1) University of Miami NIEHS: Ciguatera, Nov. 21, 2011

(2) University of Maryland Medical Center: Food Poisoning, Nov. 21, 2011

(3) Mayo Clinic: Viral Gastroenteritis (Stomach Flu), Nov. 21, 2011

Reviewed November 23, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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