Puking Myths: How to tell the difference between foodborne illness and the flu

During the holidays I heard a couple of barf stories that were attributed to uncertain causes. At the same time, Doug and I were laid up with the flu for about two weeks, neither of us really puking but feeling exhausted, nauseated with chills and muscle aches. One woman said she had the flu, too … that it came on really fast, was coming out both ends, and then she felt better the next day. I asked her, “Are you sure it wasn’t foodborne illness?” “Might’ve been…” she replied thoughtfully, probably going over the list of things she had eaten. Another friend just got back from Chicago – a trip that she said was ruined by her husband puking his guts out. They thought it was the Polish buffet because while he chose some foods, she had others, and she assumed something he ate was off. Might’ve been. But how do you know when it’s food poisoning and when it’s the flu?

The following list of flu symptoms, which I looked up while I was laid up on the couch over break, comes from the CDC :

Influenza usually starts suddenly and may include the following symptoms:

    * Fever (usually high)
    * Headache
    * Tiredness (can be extreme)
    * Cough
    * Sore throat
    * Runny or stuffy nose
    * Body aches
    * Diarrhea and vomiting (more common among children than adults)

Flufacts.com suggests you know the FACTS (Fever, Aches, Chills, Tiredness,
Sudden symptoms)

If you have foodborne illness, the FDA’s Bad Bug Book gives a comprehensive list of suspects by symptom and time of onset. It can be a little more complicated to diagnose as some toxins, such as shellfish toxin, can have an onset of diarrhea and vomiting in under an hour whereas salmonella takes on average 2-4 days to produce possible symptoms of abdominal cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, fever, chills, malaise, nausea, and/or headache.

Foodborne illness is not usually (although sometimes can be) caused by the last thing you ate, and the flu does not usually (but sometimes can) produce vomiting and diarrhea in adults. Next time you’re puking your guts out, if you can manage to concentrate, you might have to make a longer grocery list of items in your diet. Was it what you had three days ago? Might’ve been.