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Norovirus vs Food Poisoning: What’s The Difference?

When it comes to an upset stomach, there are two potential culprits that can leave you feeling particularly worse for wear: norovirus and food poisoning.

And while the symptoms of norovirus and food poisoning are similar, they do differ in causes, prevention, and recovery time. Norovirus can also lead to a common condition called gastroenteritis, which causes diarrhoea, vomiting, and a fever.

In this article, we will outline how you can become infected with norovirus and food poisoning, how long norovirus can last, as well as the differences between food poisoning and norovirus.

What is norovirus?

Also known as the winter vomiting bug, norovirus is one of the most common stomach bugs in the UK and is most prevalent during the winter – although you can catch norovirus at any time of year.

Similar to food poisoning, norovirus and other stomach viruses can cause the following symptoms:

  • Nausea.
  • Vomiting.
  • Diarrhoea.
  • High temperature.
  • Headaches.
  • Aches in your arms and legs.
  • Stomach cramps.

How do you become infected with norovirus?

The most common way to catch norovirus is by coming into contact with someone who has norovirus.

However, you can also get norovirus by consuming contaminated foods and drink or by touching something contaminated with the bug, without then washing your hands.

Remember, norovirus is contagious, which means it can spread to others by close contact with someone already infected.

How long does norovirus last?

Similar to food poisoning, stomach viruses usually clear up on their own within 2 days, but there are some pain management steps you can follow at home to ease your discomfort:

  • Drink plenty of fluids: Just like food poisoning, stomach bugs can cause dehydration, so it is important drink plenty of water. You should also avoid alcohol, fizzy drinks, and caffeine, as these can worsen norovirus symptoms or the effects of dehydration.

  • Take paracetamol: In addition to drinking plenty of water, you can also take paracetamol to help ease any aches and pains, as well as treat a fever.

  • Get plenty of rest: Again, similar to food poisoning, stomach bugs require lots of rest to heal properly. It’s best to take time off work and avoid engaging in any strenuous activities until you feel much more like yourself.

While most cases of norovirus will clear up on their own within 48 hours, you should seek immediate medical attention if you’re experiencing the following:

  • Blood in your vomit or diarrhoea.
  • Suspect you’ve swallowed something poisonous.
  • A stiff neck and feel pain when looking at bright lights.

What should I do if my child has norovirus?

If you’re caring for a baby or young child with norovirus, try to avoid giving them fruit juice as this can worsen their diarrhoea. And, while it’s generally recommended to stay away from milk with stomach bugs, you should keep to your usual breast feeding or milk feed schedule.

The NHS advises that you call 111 for support, if you notice any of the following symptoms in your baby or young child with norovirus:

  • A baby under 12 months has norovirus symptoms.
  • Your child is refusing to breast or bottle feeding.
  • You suspect your child is dehydrated (fewer wet nappies is a sign).
  • Your child has blood in their diarrhoea.
  • Your child has been vomiting for more than 2 days.
  • Your child has had diarrhoea for more than 7 days.

What is food poisoning?

Food poisoning is a common illness which effects around 2.4 million people a year in the UK and is typically caused by bacteria or viruses found in food or drink.

Unlike a stomach bug, food poisoning symptoms can show up within just a few hours of consuming the contaminated product. Once they show, symptoms of food poisoning commonly include:

  • Nausea.
  • Vomiting.
  • Diarrhoea.
  • Stomach cramps.
  • Temperature (38C or higher).
  • Body aches.
  • Body chills.
  • Feeling tired.

Like any stomach bug, food poisoning can also cause dehydration due to water loss from vomiting and diarrhoea. So, stay on top of your hydration by drinking plenty of fluids like water or diluted fruit juices.

How do you get infected with food poisoning?

You can become infected with food poisoning by eating contaminated food - though it can also be passed through cross contamination in food prep too.

For example, one of the most common ways to catch food poisoning is through the transfer of bacteria from raw to cooked foods. This can happen if you use the same cutting board for both raw and cooked meat, without washing up in-between. You can also become infected with food poisoning by not cooking food thoroughly enough, particularly chicken, pork, or sausages.

Not refrigerating or freezing food products correctly and properly can put you at risk of catching food poisoning as well, so can eating unwashed fruits and veg.

How long does food poisoning last?

While the symptoms of food poisoning can be painful and discomforting, most cases clear up on their own within 12 to 48 hours. However, there are some steps you can take at home to ease your symptoms in the meantime:

  • Eat easily digestible foods: It’s best to stick to foods your stomach can easily digest, such as crackers, rice, bananas, and toast. Broth and soups are ideal for food poisoning recovery too.

  • Stay hydrated: Drink plenty of hydrating liquids, such as water or diluted juice. What’s more, you should avoid caffeine and alcohol as they can worsen your symptoms.

  • Get lots of rest: Just like you would with any stomach bug, food poisoning requires lots of rest to give your body time to heal itself. So, don’t stray too far from your bed or couch while you feel sick.

If your symptoms continue for several days after the 48-hour mark, show no signs of improving, or you think your little one has food poisoning, then you should speak to your GP.

Differences between food poisoning and stomach flu

As most of the symptoms are quite similar, it can be difficult to notice the differences between food poisoning and stomach flu. However, there are a few contrasting characteristics to take note of.

In the table, below, we have provided a quick breakdown of the main differences between food poisoning and stomach viruses, such as norovirus.

Food poisoning vs stomach flu: what are the differences?


Food poisoning

Stomach flu

What’s the cause?

Bacteria, viruses, or parasites


What are the symptoms?

· Nausea.

· Vomiting.

· Diarrhoea.

· High temperature.

· Stomach cramps.

· Body aches.

· Body chills.

· Feeling tired.

· Nausea.

· Vomiting.

· Diarrhoea.

· High temperature.

· Stomach cramps.

· Joint stiffness

· Headaches.

· Weight loss.

When do symptoms show?

Within 6 hours

Within 12 to 48 hours

How long do symptoms last?

12 to 48 hours

At least 48 hours

Whether you have food poisoning or a stomach virus, you’re likely to feel better within 1 to 2 days without the need for medical intervention. However, it is always best to consult you GP if you start to feel worried or anxious about your stomach bug or food poisoning symptoms.

Feel confident in knowing the differences between food poisoning and stomach flu? Well, you can find some more useful articles on our
Be Healthy hub to aid your recovery. Read our article on how much water you should drink to stay healthy or head to our blog post on when to see a GP for your ailment.

Medically reviewed in November 2023.