Here’s Why It’s Hard To Tell If It’s COVID Or Food Poisoning

Plus, what you should do about it either way.

Originally Published: 
A person lies down in their bed, slightly curled up and holding their stomach. COVID can feel like f...
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Throughout the pandemic, the regular ups and downs in people's health — a cough, a sore throat, less of an ability to smell your partner's cooking — have triggered "could it be COVID?" alarms. Since COVID is a respiratory virus, you might dismiss an afternoon of queasiness as definitely not pandemic-related. But doctors say that COVID can feel like food poisoning, and getting tested when in doubt is good pandemic practice anyway.

"One of the hardest parts about diagnosing COVID is that it can look like anything," says Dr. Michael Richardson, M.D., a family medicine doctor with One Medical. So how are you supposed to know the difference between a case of COVID and a bout of food poisoning?

Why Might COVID Feel Like Food Poisoning?

Doctors aren't precisely sure how COVID wreaks havoc on your stomach, says Dr. Sanjeev Jain, M.D., a doctor double-board certified in immunology and internal medicine at Columbia Asthma and Allergy Clinic. But, he explains, experts have some good guesses — viruses cause inflammation, and that can include swelling in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract. "Inflammation in the GI tract allows for more fluid to leak out, which can result in diarrhea," Dr. Jain says. "It also triggers receptors in the GI tract that sends signals to the brain which can induce nausea and vomiting." So, while COVID isn't food poisoning, it may well feel like it.

"Gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms occur in 5-10% of COVID cases," Dr. Richardson tells Bustle. "As a primary care physician, I always need to think about COVID if someone is presenting with possible food poisoning." And if you're someone experiencing unexplained GI distress in the time of COVID, it's something you might need to think about, too.

What Are The Differences Between COVID & Food Poisoning?

Though an upset stomach can feel miserable no matter the cause, Dr. Jain says that there are some key differences between COVID and food poisoning to look out for. "If you are experiencing bloody diarrhea, this would more likely be a symptom caused by a bacterial infection than COVID," he explains. Food poisoning can be caused by bacterial infections, such as E. coli, or viruses, such as viral gastroenteritis. "If you are experiencing any respiratory symptoms, a loss of smell or taste with the GI symptoms, you are more likely experiencing symptoms of COVID."

Regardless of your other symptoms, Dr. Richardson says it's best to exercise caution when you're nauseous and vomiting. "The stakes are so much higher when it might be COVID," he explains, "which is why doctors will likely test you for COVID before settling on a diagnosis of food poisoning." That said, just like some people with COVID lose their sense of taste but don't develop a cough, COVID nausea might be your only symptom — so it's important to get tested just in case. Before you get your test and results, quarantining at home is the best way to protect those around you if it is indeed COVID.

How Do You Treat An Upset Stomach During COVID?

Your body needs plenty of water and nutrients to fight off viruses like COVID or run of the mill food poisoning, Dr. Richardson explains. But nausea can complicate matters. "It’s hard to keep up your energy if you can’t eat because of nausea or becoming dehydrated from diarrhea," he says. Make sure you're taking in as much water and nutrients as you're able to. Dr. Jain tells Bustle that a sports drink can help give you the electrolytes, minerals, and water that you need in one go.

"Pre-pandemic, I would have recommended staying hydrated and waiting it out a few days, but COVID has changed everything," Dr. Richardson tells Bustle. "If you develop digestive symptoms, do reach out to your primary care doctor and think about getting tested for COVID. When in doubt, reach out to your doctor for advice."


Dr. Michael Richardson, M.D., family medicine doctor with One Medical

Dr. Sanjeev Jain, M.D., doctor double-board certified in immunology and internal medicine, Columbia Asthma and Allergy Clinic

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