Was It Something You Ate?

You know the feeling. It starts with a few twitches or cramping in your abdomen and ends up with weakness, loss of appetite, diarrhea, and sometimes vomiting anfood-poisoning 11.24.15d a fever.

What nobody ever seems to know is whether the illness was really caused by genuine food poisoning, or if it is  a stomach virus.  It’s tough even for healthcare providers to tell the difference. Most people tend to just call it food poisoning.  Others decide it’s the stomach flu.

Either way, most physicians will diagnose your problem as “gastroenteritis.”  That’s a non-specific term for a range of abdominal troubles that are associated with diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain. The illnesses can range from inconvenient to life-threatening.

It’s hard to know how many people get this sort of stomach trouble every year because many are not reported. It’s estimated that there are 100 million cases a year, and that children alone account for 1.5 million outpatient visits because of stomach trouble.

Food poisoning happens when you eat or drink something contaminated with infectious organisms, bacteria, parasites or viruses passed on to you through food or water. Some of the most common carriers include raw oysters, contaminated water or ice cubes, lettuce, bagged spinach, alfalfa sprouts and cantaloupe. Bacteria-caused food poisoning typically hits you 12 to 36 hours after ingestion.

The majority of cases of gastritis are caused by the norovirus. It’s very contagious and quite resistant to alcohol-based products, including hand sanitizers. You can get norovirus by eating something people have prepared without properly washing their hands (fecal contamination); from the air (if you’re in a bathroom, dorm, classroom or hostel when someone vomits and the virus is airborne); from water; from deli meats; and from touching contaminated surfaces.

So you see, you can get a food-borne illness that most people would call food poisoning just by touching the counter at a store or using the handrail when you’re running down stairs. And because so many people attribute their troubles to something they ate, they may be less careful about taking the necessary precautions to prevent passing it on to roommates, friends and family.

If you’ve been infected by the norovirus, the incubation period is 12-48 hours  and the onset of symptoms is sudden. The illness usually lasts between 12 hours and 2 or 3 days.

No matter how you’ve gotten a stomach virus, the recommendations are the same.

See your healthcare provider if:

  • Your symptoms persist for more than a few days, see your healthcare provider.
  • Your symptoms suddenly get worse, or
  • Your fever goes above 102 degrees Fahrenheit, or you see blood in your stool or vomit, see your healthcare provider.
  • You can’t keep food or water down for more than 24 hours


  • Keep hydrated by drinking sips of water, chewing on ice chips, having a popsicle, and starting to have clear liquids and soft foods as soon as you feel you can.
  • Consider taking over-the-counter medications like Immodium for diarrhea, Emetrol for nausea.
  • Rest.

When people say they have food poisoning,  tell them that whatever they call it — stomach flu, stomach virus, food poisoning, or gastroenteritis — they should follow these tips for when to see a healthcare provider and how to keep from becoming severely dehydrated.

About Barbara Bronson Gray, RN, MN

I'm an experienced healthcare and science editor and journalist. But most of all, I'm a registered nurse with many years of experience working in hospitals. I've learned what patients and families need first hand. But I've also worked to improve hospitals and educate people about their health. I'm committed to helping people take charge of their health care and get what they need from a complex and often discouraging healthcare system.
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