Flu vs. Food Poisoning

Reviewed by Taylor Wolfram, MS, RDN, LDN
woman sick with flu - Flu vs. Food Poisoning


Foodborne illness causes an estimated 48 million illnesses (1 out of 6 Americans), 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths each year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sometimes, it's not always easy to tell the difference between food poisoning and influenza, especially since both show similar symptoms.

Influenza, commonly called "the flu," is caused by a virus that infects the respiratory tract. Foodborne disease, referred to as food poisoning, is carried or transmitted to humans by food containing harmful substances.


"The Flu"

Food Poisoning

Body aches and pains

Common: headache and muscle aches

Common: headache, backache and stomach cramps


Common (often extreme)

Common (often extreme)





Rarely prominent*

Common (often severe)

Gastrointestinal: Nausea

Rarely prominent*


Gastrointestinal: Diarrhea

Rarely prominent*


Respiratory: Chest discomfort, cough

Common (often extreme, can become severe)


Respiratory: Nasal congestion, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose



Prevent or Lessen Risk Annual Vaccination Proper Food Handling

Everyone can reduce their risk of food poisoning by properly handling food and following the Four Simple Steps: wash, separate, cook and refrigerate. Although everyone is at risk for contracting food poisoning, certain vulnerable populations are even more susceptible to food poisoning, so be extra careful if you are high risk or handling food for those at a higher risk including older adults, pregnant women, younger children and those with weakened immune systems.

Learn more about the most common foodborne pathogens.

Both food poisoning and the flu can be very serious, so if you think you are ill, especially if you have a fever, see your health-care provider.

*Although nausea, vomiting and diarrhea can sometimes accompany influenza infection, especially in children, gastrointestinal symptoms are rarely prominent.

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