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Food Poisoning Or The Vomit Bug?

I just got home from a big extended family dinner party. My very cute niece was not in attendance as she was at home sick, vomiting. The question came up, does she have food poisoning or the vomit bug (as in gastroenteritis)? I figured that if the question came up in my family, it may come up in yours.

Here’s the quick low down:

Generally speaking, food poisoning refers to the illness one experiences after eating germ-infected food. The symptoms usually have a quick onset and are severe. The hallmark of food poisoning is violent, sudden vomiting. Sometimes, you can experience diarrhea with it. It can be caused by bacteria (e.g., Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria), viruses (hepatitis A), or other toxins. The good news is that food poisoning is generally short lived (less than 24 hrs) and isn’t contagious. The typical onset is within a few hours of eating the contaminated foods (although there are exceptions). It is most assuredly food poisoning if everyone in the party/group/family all get sick at the same time, a few hours after all being together and eating the same food. Treat food poisoning with rest and fluids. Don’t take an antidiarrheal medication. The illness is your body’s attempt to get out the rotten food, don’t undermine it or prolong it by taking something to slow the process down. I am convinced that much of what people are referring to as the “24-hour flu” is really food poisoning.

The vomit bug, stomach flu, or “gastroenteritis” as it’s medically referred to, can initially look similar. It can have a sudden onset and is heralded by vomiting. In the strictest sense, it is an irritation or inflammation of the GI tract (i.e., stomach and intestines). Technically, both terms fall into the same categorical definition, but most people refer to gastroenteritis as the non-food-related infections. Gastroenteritis is generally caused by viruses and is “caught” from someone else who also has the bug. Prepare yourself for the gross factor…gastroenteritis is generally caught via a “fecal-oral” route. This means that feces of someone infected with the bug ends up in your mouth (usually via failure to wash hands and then touch and contaminate other surfaces). Symptoms are often more generalized with gastroenteritis, including fever, abdominal pain with cramping, nausea, and dehydration. Symptoms often last longer. It is not uncommon for the vomiting to last a few days (1-3), followed by more days of diarrhea (up to 7). Gastroenteritis will spread from family member to family member over the course of days (rather than food poisoning where everyone suddenly gets sick at the exact same time). It is treated the same, with rest and fluids; steer clear of antidiarrheal meds. I advise parents that this bug is the one to pull out Clorox wipes and neurotically wipe down every common surface.

As always, prevention is the key to everything. Be careful with food preparation. Wash raw vegetables, cook food to appropriate temperatures, promptly refrigerate left overs, and for goodness sake, steer clear of the potato salad that has been sitting out at the summer BBQ for hours (it’s growing Salmonella).

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