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Food Poisoning vs Diarrhea: Which One Do I Have?

Medically reviewed by Jezreel Esguerra, MD · General Practitioner

Written by Fidelis Tan · Updated Feb 23, 2023

Food Poisoning vs Diarrhea: Which One Do I Have?

Food Poisoning vs Diarrhea

Food poisoning vs diarrhea – your tummy’s upset, but which one of these do you have? Diarrhea is defined as 3 or more loose stools in a span of 24 hours, and has a variety of causes. On the other hand, food poisoning refers to an illness caused by microorganisms or their toxins through intake of contaminated food products.

Thus, diarrhea is a symptom which may be found in food poisoning, but food poisoning is not the only cause of diarrhea.

Read on to get an idea of which one is making you rush to the bathroom.

Food Poisoning vs Diarrhea: Duration of Illness

Diarrhea, when occurring by itself, usually resolves within 24 to 48 hours. However, it can persist for 3 days or even longer if there is another underlying illness that cause it. If this happens, it might be a sign of food poisoning.

In cases of poisoning, the span of time between the food intake that was suspected to be contaminated and the appearance of symptoms may be a useful clue to the specific cause.

Food Poisoning vs Diarrhea: Food Intake

If you eat contaminated foods, the chances are you will suffer from food poisoning afterwards. This includes eating raw or undercooked meat or seafood, unpasteurized milk and egg products. You are also more likely to be experiencing food poisoning than just diarrhea when you travel to places with endemic foodborne illnesses.

Another clue whether you were having a food poisoning or not is when there is an outbreak of the disease. That is when you and many others were having the same symptoms of being food poisoned such as having abdominal pain and diarrhea, especially after a large gathering or events. Events of food poisoning may be large enough to be considered as an outbreak, which typically leads to investigations by government health authorities to find out the root cause. They may also have interventions put in place to prevent recurrence (e.g. public education on food handling and safety) and further spread (e.g. product recalls).

In comparison, diarrhea often resolves on its own.

Food Poisoning vs Diarrhea: Symptoms

Food poisoning often presents with other symptoms such as:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fever
  • Abdominal cramps and pain

Mild symptoms often resolve on their own. However, people who present with persistent symptoms and neurologic symptoms like the following should seek medical attention:

  • Headache
  • Muscle weakness
  • Tingling in the arms

Risk Factors

Older adults with weak immune systems, young children, pregnant women, and people with chronic illnesses (e.g. diabetes, HIV) are at higher risk of food poisoning.

Diarrhea, on the other hand, can be experienced by anyone. People who have non-infectious diarrhea may have inherited a disease or food allergies that are yet to be addressed.

Diarrhea that causes 6 or more loose stools in 24 hours warrants consultation with a doctor since it poses a risk for dehydration if left unmanaged. Chronic diarrhea with no relation to a particular food item may be due to inflammatory or digestive problems which may require specific management. Consult your physician if you have diarrhea lasting for weeks without an obvious cause.

Diagnosis and Treatment

For diagnosis, simple diarrhea often needs no additional tests.

For bacterial food poisoning, your doctor will request a stool culture and sensitivity to identify the organism responsible. This will guide the choice of antibiotics to use for your case. Viral cases do not need antibiotics and thus do not require further testing.

The most important thing to remember is whether you have simple diarrhea or diarrhea due to food poisoning, you must keep yourself well-hydrated. Oral rehydration therapy is usually the way to go in order to replace ongoing fluid losses and replenish electrolytes lost in the stool.

Hydration is especially important in  babies and young children. Severe dehydration can present as a very sleepy or tired baby, cold hands and feet, and urinating a little or not at all. In older children and adults, feelings of thirst, dizziness, and tiredness are also common signs of dehydration. Severe dehydration will require hospitalization and IV hydration but mild dehydration can be treated at home. Oral rehydration therapy is often available in pharmacies. Sports drinks and soft drinks are not recommended because they can worsen diarrhea due to the high sugar content which causes further dehydration.

Key Takeaways

Food poisoning is just one among the many causes of diarrhea.

Simple diarrhea often occurs in isolation and resolves within 24 to 48 hours. Food poisoning manifests as diarrhea usually lasting more than 3 days. This is usually accompanied by other symptoms such as vomiting and abdominal cramps.

Both simple diarrhea and food poisoning place you at risk of dehydration. Remember to drink up or take oral rehydration solutions if you experience diarrhea.

Learn more about Foodborne Infections here.


Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Medically reviewed by

Jezreel Esguerra, MD

General Practitioner

Written by Fidelis Tan · Updated Feb 23, 2023

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