Flu vs. Food Poisoning

Contributors: Esther Ellis, MS, RDN, LDN
woman sick with flu - Flu vs. Food Poisoning


Foodborne illness causes an estimated 48 million illnesses, 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 illness, referred to as food poisoning, is carried or transmitted to humans by food containing harmful substances.

Symptoms "The Flu" Food Poisoning
Body aches and pains Common: headache and muscle aches Common: headache, backache and stomach cramps
Fatigue Common (often extreme) Common (often extreme)
Fever Common Common
Gastrointestinal Rarely prominent* Common (often severe)
Gastrointestinal: Nausea Rarely prominent* Common
Gastrointestinal: Diarrhea Rarely prominent* Common
Respiratory: Chest discomfort, cough Common (often extreme, can become severe) Rare
Respiratory: Nasal congestion, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose Common Rare
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.

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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