Managing Dehydration: Food Poisoning vs the Stomach Flu

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This program is supported by an unrestricted educational grant from Abbott.

Dehydration, simply put is what happens when your body loses more fluid than you take in.  As we learned in our previous post, water makes up about 60% of the human body, so it’s clear that we need water to keep us going every day. When you experience dehydration, it doesn’t just mean you are losing water. It also means you’re losing electrolytes such as potassium and sodium, which helps your body breath, move, talk and do all the other things it needs to operate and feel our best!

How do you tell if you’re dehydrated?

When you or your child is dehydrated, you may feel multiple effects, and the signs and symptoms can differ with age.

Infants:

  • Fever
  • Unusual tiredness
  • No tears
  • Dry mouth
  • No wet diapers (for 3 hours or longer)

Children and Adults:

  • Extreme thirst
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Dark-coloured urine
  • Less frequent urination
  • Crankiness
  • Dry skin
  • Dry mouth
  • Constipation

Many things can lead to dehydration, including the flu, food poisoning, travel, heat, exercise and fever.

If you’ve ever had food poisoning or the stomach flu, you know all of the not-so-pleasant symptoms that come along with them. Symptoms like diarrhea and vomiting can lead to dehydration which can make you feel even worse (yes it’s possible!), and if not treated, can become a serious problem.

But never fear, CDHF is here! We have come up with top tips and strategies to help manage dehydration when you or your child has come down with one of these illnesses.

Let’s start with food poisoning

Also called foodborne illness, food poisoning is a sickness caused by eating contaminated food. The causes of food poisoning include viruses, parasites, and bacteria.

Did you know there are more than 250 different foodborne diseases! Depending on the cause, symptoms often include nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, which can occur over a short period of time. 

These symptoms can cause a tremendous loss of water and electrolytes, and as mentioned, dehydration can often make you or your child feel even worse.

Managing dehydration from food poisoning

First and foremost, to help you or your child feel better, fluids and electrolytes lost from diarrhea and vomiting MUST be replaced.

Your first thought might be to grab a juice or sports drink to get back those lost electrolytes. However, it’s important to mention that many of these drinks are high in sugar and low in sodium, which can sometimes make the symptoms of diarrhea and vomiting due to  food poisoning worse.

Instead, try an over-the-counter oral rehydration solution. These solutions contain electrolytes, sodium, potassium, and chloride in specific proportions to replenish both fluids and electrolytes.

The World Health Organization recommends an oral electrolyte solution such as  Pedialyte®  1 for relieving mild to moderate dehydration due to vomiting and diarrhea.  Oral electrolyte solutions offer an optimal amount of electrolytes and sugar to help cells bring in lost water due to vomiting and diarrhea. We recommend following the instructions on the label of Pedialyte® to help your child rehydrate.

Here are some additional tips to help keep you or your loved one comfortable and prevent further dehydration:

  • Let your stomach settle: stop eating or drinking for a few hours.
  • Eat plain foods: gradually begin to eat small bites of bland foods such as crackers, rice, and bananas. Stop eating if your nausea returns.
  • Avoid certain foods and drinks: Don’t eat dairy or fatty foods and avoid caffeine and alcohol until you feel better.
  • Avoid smoking
  • Rest: the dehydration and illness can tire you out so give your body a chance to recover by resting

As always, if you are concerned about dehydration from food poisoning, CDHF recommends consulting your health care professional.

What about the stomach flu?

Unlike the seasonal flu (a respiratory infection caused by the influenza virus), the “stomach flu” is due to several viruses that cause the intestines to become inflamed. If you’ve ever experienced the stomach flu, you know it hits hard and comes on fast.

The norovirus is a common source of the stomach flu, which is a very contagious virus that causes vomiting and diarrhea. The stomach flu can affect people of all ages and can spread very quickly and easily in shared spaces like your child’s school, your office, restaurants and public transportation.

Symptoms include chills, fever, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and severe aches and pains. Similar to food poisoning, diarrhea and vomiting associated with the stomach flu can dehydrate you, which can make you or your child feeling worse.

The unfortunate news is that cause the stomach flu is a viral infection, so it has to run its course and get better on its own.  

That said, there are ways to make yourself more comfortable and prevent complications, including:

  • Eat bland foods such as bananas, rice, apple sauce and crackers
  • Try to avoid sugary foods or drinks
  • Drink small sips of an oral rehydrating solution

Remember, if you or your child is experiencing diarrhea for more than 24 hours, has a high fever, blood in your stool or vomit, or severe abdominal pain, you should speak to your doctor.

Feel Better Faster

Although the symptoms of stomach flu and food poisoning are very similar, the difference is in the duration of the illnesses. Food poisoning often clears up in a few days, whereas stomach flu can last ten days or more.

What we do know is those common symptoms can lead to dehydration which can make you feel even worse, so be sure to have oral-hydrating solutions on hand or in your first-aid kit, so you are well-equipped and ready to fight dehydration before it occurs!


  1. World Health Organization. Oral Rehydration Salts: Production of the new ORS. 2006.