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How can you tell the difference between gastroenteritis and food poisoning?

General practice
The symptoms of gastroenteritis and food poisoning, including stomach cramps, vomiting, diarrhoea, nausea and even fever in some cases, are well-known and feared, but they actually come from different sources. What is the difference between gastroenteritis, food poisoning and stomach flu and how should you treat them differently? Let’s take a look...

Different names for the same result

Gastroenteritis broadly refers to infections of the gastrointestinal tract, most often involving the small intestine, caused by bacteria, viruses, parasites or toxins (mushrooms). Stomach flu is simply another name for gastroenteritis and is not related to the influenza virus apart from sharing a few similar symptoms, such as fever and aches.

How do you know what type of infection you have?

Food poisoning is generally caused by bacteria in contaminated food. Symptoms are usually triggered within hours of eating the offending food due to the toxins released by the bacteria, particularly when the infection is caused by staphylococcus or salmonella bacteria.  
Symptoms of viral gastroenteritis usually start between six and 48 hours after direct or indirect contact with a virus. Norovirus is most common in adults, while rotavirus is most common among babies and young children. Gastroenteritis is highly contagious and there is unfortunately no miracle cure. You usually need to wait for the symptoms to go away, this takes about two days in most cases.
We now know the different causes but is still extremely difficult to tell the difference between food poisoning and gastroenteritis. Food poisoning tends to start more dramatically with a sudden onset of severe symptoms, usually about one hour after eating. This suspicion is reinforced by several people becoming ill at the same time. A stool sample can determine if the infection is caused by a virus or bacteria.
Patient history is also essential, with details about infectious contact involving family and friends as well as the food eaten.

How can you treat the infection?

Young children and the elderly are particularly at risk of complications, such as dehydration, during acute symptoms and therefore need immediate medical care.
You should also see a doctor if you notice blood in your stool or have a high fever.
If you have eaten mushrooms, you must see a doctor as soon as possible as approximately a hundred species contain toxins that can be fatal. 
Moderate symptoms, such as a few episodes of vomiting with less than ten episodes of diarrhoea in 24 hours, can be managed at home by monitoring your fluid and food intake. Drink plenty of fluids, choose starchy foods like rice and avoid dairy products, meat, spicy foods, sugar and fat.

How can you prevent gastroenteritis?

You cannot always avoid getting gastroenteritis, but good hygiene will definitely reduce the risk. Wash your hands properly and regularly, remembering to wash both sides and between your fingers really well. Use hand sanitiser between washes. Change your bedding regularly, avoid sharing cutlery and towels and be careful when preparing meals.  Clean and disinfect bathroom surfaces after each use.