Recent food poisoning outbreaks across the nation have had many people concerned about contracting a foodborne illness. But stomach pain or discomfort after eating can be caused by a variety of factors, including overeating. As a result, it's often difficult to tell whether your tummy trouble is a short-lived stomach ache or food poisoning, or a more serious, potentially life-threatening illness that warrants a trip to the doctor's office.

About one in six Americans contract some form of food poisoning annually. This results in an estimated 128,000 hospitalizations and about 3,000 deaths, according to the Food and Drug Administration.


With identical symptoms, like abdominal cramps and pain, the first step in figuring out what you're suffering from is to determine what may have caused the pain. An upset stomach, characterized by swelling or inflammation of the stomach lining and intestines, is sometimes caused by eating or drinking too much, a virus, or an allergic reaction to a certain type of food, according to Healthline. Consuming too much alcohol or fatty foods can also irritate the stomach.

Most cases of food poisoning can be traced to bacteria found in food. Salmonella, E.Coli and Listeria are responsible for 91 percent of multiple state food poisoning outbreaks, according to a recent report from the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). One of the ways most people try to rule out food poisoning is by looking back and remembering what they ate six hours earlier. Major culprits of food-poisoning outbreaks include mayonnaise-based salads, undercooked meat, and fresh produce that hasn't been washed well, according to Mother Nature Network. So if you have a tummy ache, and you have consumed one of these foods within the last six to 12 hours, it's probably just that.

"Food poisoning can be used to describe an allergic reaction to food, injury caused by chemical contamination, or illness caused by viral and bacteriological contamination. Foodborne illnesses caused by fairly common norovirus infections or more serious Salmonella infections can have mild symptoms that pass in a matter of hours or a few days," David Plunkett, senior staff attorney at the Food Safety Program Center for Science in the Public Interest, told Medical Daily.


Another way to decipher whether a stomach ache is minor or a sign of something more serious is by examining the symptoms. Common symptoms of upset stomach may include heartburn, gas, nausea, vomiting, belching, chills, and an increase in bowel movements, according to Healthline. Most of these symptoms are benign and eventually pass.

Cases of food poisoning usually start within hours of eating contaminated food, and can range from mild (usually involving abdominal pain) to severe (having a fever higher than 101.5 degrees and nonstop diarrhea). Most cases of foodborne illnesses can be resolved without treatment. But symptoms of potentially life-threatening food poisoning include diarrhea persisting for more than three days, a high fever, blurry vision, difficulty speaking, and severe dehydration, according to Healthline. These will always warrant a trip to the doctor’s office.


"People can and do tough these illnesses out," Plunkett said. "They don’t go to the doctor and the illness passes on its own. CDC estimates that only one in 30 Salmonella cases are reported, for example."

An upset stomach can be eased with yogurt, which has probiotic qualities that "make it a good cure as it eases digestive discomfort and boosts your immune system." Fennel and apple cider vinegar are also good treatment options. Food poisoning, which usually improves within 48 hours of its onset, really only requires rest and proper hydration. According to Healthline, sports drinks high in electrolytes, fruit juice, and coconut water can help with this. Over-the-counter medications, like Imodium and Pepto Bismol, help to treat diarrhea and suppress nausea as well.

The only way to know for sure whether you have food poisoning, however, is to see a doctor and obtain a diagnosis. "It is critically important that if you believe you are a food poisoning victim, that you see a doctor," Plunkett said. "Not only does this safeguard your health — since many foodborne illnesses can lead to serious complications including long-term health conditions — it also helps identify disease outbreaks and track the cause to its source."

The difference between a stomach ache and food poisoning is the degree of seriousness — whether a person feels sick enough to see a doctor. However, if you believe you are a food poisoning victim, it is critically important to see a doctor. In addition to safeguarding your health, a diagnosis may also help identify disease outbreaks and track the cause to its source. In turn, this will allow public health officials to correct problems in the food supply chain before other people become ill.

Foodborne illnesses can be reduced by requiring everyone in the food supply chain to have sanitary operations, institute preventive controls, and practice safe handling of food. Consumers also have a responsibility to handle food safely in the home, too.