If you are experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, you may wonder if the cause is food poisoning, stomach flu, or COVID-19. These conditions share similar symptoms, though there are some key differences between them.
Read on to learn more about the symptoms of food poisoning, stomach flu, and COVID-19 and how to determine which condition you have. You’ll also learn how to treat each condition, when to seek medical care, and how to test for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
To determine what is causing your gastrointestinal symptoms, it’s important to consider factors such as severity, accompanying symptoms, and possible causes. You may need to take a test to get a diagnosis.
Typical food poisoning symptoms
Eating food contaminated with bacteria, viruses, or parasites can cause food poisoning.
Symptoms can occur within a few hours, days, or weeks of consuming contaminated food. They tend to be more severe than symptoms of the stomach flu.
Common food poisoning symptoms include:
Usually, symptoms are mild to moderate and get better within a week, with or without treatment. However, severe and chronic (long-term) cases may require hospitalization.
Typical stomach flu symptoms
A viral infection causes the stomach flu, called viral gastroenteritis. Usually, symptoms occur 1 to 3 days after exposure to the virus and improve within 1 to 3 days.
Common symptoms of the stomach flu include:
As you can see, the stomach flu can give you many of the same symptoms as food poisoning, but with additional pain in the joints and muscles due to the viral infection.
Typical COVID-19 symptoms
People who develop COVID-19 from SARS-CoV-2 may have a wide variety of symptoms that are mild to severe. Usually, symptoms occur 2 to 14 days after exposure to the virus.
Gastrointestinal symptoms often occur during the early phase of COVID-19. They may appear before respiratory symptoms. Symptoms of COVID-19 include:
Unlike food poisoning or the stomach flu, COVID-19 usually causes respiratory symptoms as well as gastrointestinal. If you’ve developed a cough or are experiencing a lack of taste or smell, it’s a good idea to speak with your doctor and get tested for SARS-CoV-2.
To treat mild to moderate food poisoning or stomach flu, there are several home remedies you can try.
Home remedies to treat food poisoning and stomach flu include:
- Staying hydrated. Symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea can lead to dehydration. Consume plenty of water and beverages with electrolytes, such as coconut water, fruit juice, and sports drinks.
- Using a heating pad. To alleviate abdominal pain and relax your stomach muscles, apply a heating pad to your stomach for 15 minutes at a time.
- Consuming ginger and mint. Ginger and mint may help alleviate nausea. You can take the herbs in supplement form or drink them in tea.
- Drinking herbal teas. Drink licorice, fennel, and chamomile tea to calm and soothe your stomach.
If you have symptoms of dehydration, severe symptoms, or symptoms that do not improve within a few days, visit a healthcare professional.
Symptoms of dehydration include:
- decreased urination
- dry mouth, lips, or throat
- dizziness when standing
- extreme thirst
See a healthcare professional if you have severe symptoms such as:
- bloody diarrhea
- high fever (103°F or 39.4°C, or above)
- frequent vomiting, which can cause dehydration
- diarrhea that lasts longer than 3 days
If you’re concerned about visiting a doctor’s office or hospital due to the possibility of contracting SARS-CoV-2, you can take precautions to maximize your safety by:
- wearing a mask
- maintaining a distance of 6 feet
- using hand sanitizer regularly
- scheduling your appointment in the morning, since the waiting and exam rooms are likely to be the cleanest
Healthcare workers and staff are taking precautions as well, most of whom are fully vaccinated. Some precautions they may take include:
- regularly cleaning and disinfecting clinics
- spacing out appointments to minimize the number of people in the waiting room
- giving you the option to skip the waiting room altogether
- performing tests and other procedures in the exam room instead of having you visit multiple locations, in some cases
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends getting tested if you experience COVID-19 symptoms or have been in close contact with a person with COVID-19.
A rapid self-test involving a nasal swab will provide quick results. Laboratory tests involving saliva or a nasal swab provide results within 1 to 3 days. Usually, laboratory tests are more accurate than self-tests.
While you’re waiting for the results of your test, it’s a good idea to stay at home, both to quarantine and to take care of yourself. At-home treatments for COVID-19 are similar to treatments for other viruses and include:
- getting plenty of rest
- staying hydrated
- taking prebiotics and probiotics to treat gastrointestinal symptoms
- taking acetaminophen to alleviate headaches, body aches, and fever
- applying an ice pack for 15 minutes at a time to reduce fever
Some symptoms of food poisoning, stomach flu, and COVID-19 are similar, which may make it tricky to determine which condition you have. In most cases, people can treat food poisoning or stomach flu by resting, staying hydrated, and using home remedies.
If your symptoms are severe or do not improve within a few days, make an appointment with a healthcare professional. They can provide you with an accurate diagnosis, determine if there are any underlying causes, and choose the best course of treatment.
If you think your symptoms are from COVID-19, follow the usual safety precautions and self-isolate. Take a test as soon as possible.