You know the feeling. It comes on suddenly and if you don’t make it to the bathroom very soon, well, let’s not even go there.
No one wants to talk about diarrhea, let alone vomiting. But when you’ve been afflicted, there’s not much else to discuss. According to the Cleveland Clinic, adults experience 99 million cases of acute diarrhea gastroenteritis every year. And that doesn’t count the cases that never get mentioned to a doctor.
Of those cases, most are caused by infection—meaning you picked up a virus or bacteria somehow. The Centers for Disease Control says that one in six Americans will get a foodborne illness this year, meaning that the source of their illness is their food.
It’s not always easy to tell the difference between a garden-variety stomach virus, which may be spread from person to person, and food poisoning, says Claudia Gruss, M.D., a spokesperson for the American Gastroenterological Association and a practicing gastroenterologist at the Arbor Medical Group in Norwalk, Connecticut.
“There is definitely an overlap,” she says. “A virus can give you an acute infection of the gastrointestinal tract involving the stomach or intestines. Food poisoning is when you get an infection due to eating contaminated food.”
Food poisoning can come from bacteria, viruses or parasites. And, depending on the type of food poisoning, the bacteria may be sending toxins into your gut. The best way to know if it's food poisoning: Someone who ate the same thing as you got sick, too. Otherwise, you may never know the cause.
The symptoms for both an infection and food poisoning are largely the same:
Food poisoning tends to come on within a few hours of eating (or even right after), while a virus can gradually come on over time (Your stomach may begin to hurt, or you might feel queasy). However, notes Gruss, some food-based infections, like Hepatitis A, can take a month or more to show up.
In terms of how long symptoms last, food poisoning generally resolves within a day or two, while a virus can take several days to resolve.
No matter the cause of your stomach distress, if symptoms last for several days, are accompanied by a fever, or you have blood in your stool, you need to call your doctor. If you’ve been eating wild mushrooms, you should also call your doctor because wild mushroom (not the white button kind sold at the grocery, but types including morels and chanterelles) can be responsible for liver failure that will require immediate medical attention.
If you ate something that made you run to the bathroom for 24 to 48 hours, consider yourself lucky and move on with your life. There are some food-borne illnesses that can be very debilitating, and in some cases, fatal. Gruss named a few:
If you become sick with gastroenteritis, brought on by a bacteria or by a virus, the treatment is generally the same, Gruss says. Here are the steps to take to make yourself feel better:
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