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Food poisoning: Symptoms and treatment options

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food poisoning

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  • Food poisoning (also known as foodborne illness) is caused by consuming food or drink that has been contaminated by disease-causing bacteria, viruses or parasites. Minor cases of food poisoning usually resolve within a few days even without treatment
  • The warning signs of food poisoning may occur within a few hours or days after eating contaminated food. Some of the common symptoms of most types of food poisoning include nausea, vomiting, fever, diarrhea and abdominal pain
  • There are no specific treatment methods to help you get rid of food poisoning instantly, but you may help relieve your symptoms by allowing your stomach time to settle, eating bland foods, drinking lots of fluids and getting plenty of rest

Food poisoning is caused by eating contaminated food.1 According to the preliminary data gathered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were 25,606 cases of food poisoning in 2018, 5,893 of which involved hospitalization and 120 resulted in death.2 Read on to learn what the causes and symptoms of food poisoning are and how it may be treated.

What is food poisoning?

Food poisoning, also known as foodborne illness,3,4 is the result of consuming any food or drink that has been contaminated by disease-causing bacteria, viruses or parasites. These organisms may contaminate any type of food that’s been incorrectly grown, harvested, processed, handled, stored, cooked and served. Food that is past its “used by” date may also cause food poisoning when eaten.5

According to CDC, there are more than 250 identified foodborne diseases today.6 Some foods are more likely to contain infectious organisms than others are, so it’s important that you take extra precaution when handling or eating them. These foods include:7

Raw or undercooked meat, poultry and shellfish

Raw or undercooked eggs or foods that contain eggs as an ingredient

Soft cheeses

Unpasteurized juices, milk and milk products

Uncooked hot dogs, luncheon meats and other processed meats

Refrigerated meat spreads and pates

Anyone can get food poisoning, but some individuals may be more susceptible to this illness than others. This includes pregnant women, young children, older adults and people with a compromised immune system due to underlying medical conditions such as diabetes, kidney disease and AIDS.8 Although it’s rarely serious and may be treated at home, there are cases wherein food poisoning may cause serious complications like dehydration.9

Food poisoning symptoms

The warning signs of food poisoning may occur within a few hours or days after eating contaminated food, and their severity may vary according to the organism that infected you. Some of the common symptoms of most types of food poisoning include:10,11

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fever

You may need to seek immediate medical attention if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Frequent vomiting
  • Bloody vomit or stools
  • Severe stomach pain
  • High fever
  • Diarrhea that lasts more than three days
  • Signs of dehydration, such as dry mouth, excessive thirst and dizziness
  • Neurological symptoms like muscle weakness and tingling in the arms

Food poisoning versus stomach flu: How to tell the difference

Despite its name, the stomach flu or stomach bug is not related to the influenza virus. Rather, it’s a viral intestinal infection. Also known as viral gastroenteritis, stomach flu causes symptoms that are similar to that of food poisoning, including diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and sometimes fever.12

Because of the similarities in their clinical symptoms, food poisoning and stomach flu are often confused for each other. The main difference between these two conditions is the source of infection. Unlike food poisoning, which can be caused by a wide array of viruses, bacteria and other organisms, stomach flu is most often caused by a viral infection, particularly rotavirus and norovirus, adenovirus and Astrovirus.13,14

What causes food poisoning?

The onset and severity of the symptoms of food poisoning depend on what type of organism brought it about. Here are some of the most common bacteria, germs and viruses that could cause foodborne illnesses and their potential sources:15,16

Organism Onset of Symptoms Potential food sources
Clostridium perfringens Six to 24 hours Beef, poultry, and dried and precooked foods
Listeria Nine to 48 hours Cheeses, unwashed raw produce and processed meat like hot dogs and luncheon meat
Norovirus 12 to 48 hours Contaminated water, shellfish and raw produce
Salmonella 12 to 72 hours Eggs and raw or undercooked chicken, turkey and other meats
Clostridium botulinum (botulism) 18 to 36 hours Improperly canned foods and foods kept at warm temperatures for too long
Shigella 24 to 48 hours Raw produce and seafood
Rotavirus One to three days Raw produce
Vibrio One to four days Raw or undercooked shellfish, particularly oysters
Campylobacter Two to five days Raw or undercooked poultry and contaminated water
E. coli Three to four days Raw or undercooked beef, contaminated water and raw produce
Giardia lamblia One to two weeks Raw produce and contaminated water
Hepatitis A 28 days Raw produce and shellfish from contaminated water

How long does food poisoning last?

The symptoms of food poisoning usually last for a few hours to several days, depending on the type of contaminant that caused it. Here are some of the approximate duration of symptoms of the different types of food poisoning according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA):17

Organism Duration
Clostridium perfringens Around 24 hours
Listeria Variable
Norovirus 12 to 60 hours
Salmonella Four to seven days
Clostridium botulinum (Botulism) Variable
Shigella 24 to 28 hours
Vibrio Two to five days
Campylobacter Two to 10 days
E. coli Three to seven days
Hepatitis A Two weeks to three months

Is food poisoning contagious?

It is possible to acquire the organisms that cause food poisoning from an infected person. For example, during the multistate E. coli outbreak that occurred in 2018 due to contaminated romaine lettuce, some of the people who became sick did not report eating this vegetable. Instead, they had close contact with infected individuals who ate contaminated romaine lettuce beforehand.18

If you or a loved one has acquired food poisoning, it’s best to take time off from school or work until the symptoms have stopped for at least two days, as it’s during this period that you’re most likely to infect other people. You should also avoid handling food meant for other people and sharing personal belongings such as towels or eating utensils.19,20

Food poisoning treatment and remedies

The treatment for food poisoning depends on the cause of the infection and the severity of the symptoms. Minor cases of food poisoning usually resolve within a few days without treatment. For infected individuals with persistent diarrhea or vomiting, a physician may recommend the intravenous replacement of lost fluids and electrolytes to avoid dehydration.21

Your doctor may also prescribe antibiotics if the food poisoning is caused by bacteria. However, antibiotics are not effective if your illness is caused by viruses and other organisms. When used incorrectly, antibiotics can put you at risk of adverse effects such as vomiting, nausea, abdominal pain and antibiotic resistance.22 If you’re wondering what you can do to relieve the symptoms of food poisoning while you wait for your condition to run its course, follow these first aid tips:

Reduce nausea and vomiting — Getting your nausea and vomiting under control is important to avoid losing more fluids and to lower your risk of dehydration. Conventional treatments for nausea include antiemetic drugs. However, these medicines can cause side effects like headache, dizziness, anaphylaxis and hypersensitivity.23

To relieve nausea and vomiting without the unwanted side effects, try using natural remedies found in your home. One example is ginger, which is known for its natural antiemetic property and has been traditionally used to help ease nausea and motion sickness.24,25 You can consume ginger fresh or dried, or use it to make ginger tea. Other beverages that can to help ease nausea and vomiting include peppermint tea,26 chamomile tea27 and lemon juice.28

Try to control your diarrhea — Diarrhea is your body’s way of flushing out disease-causing organisms from your system, so taking medications to stop it could interfere with your body’s natural ability to address bacteria, viruses and other contaminants. Anti-diarrheal medications also come with a list of side effects, including dizziness, drowsiness and constipation.29

If you’re looking for a safer option, consider an oral zinc supplementation. According to a study published in the journal Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care, taking oral zinc supplements may help reduce stool output and shorten the duration of diarrhea.30

The treatment for diarrhea should focus on replenishing lost fluids to avoid dehydration; one way to do this is by drinking coconut water.31 You may also help boost your body’s defenses against harmful bacteria by consuming foods rich in probiotics, such as yogurt, kefir and sauerkraut.32

How to get rid of food poisoning

There are no specific treatment methods to help you get rid of food poisoning instantly, but you can take these steps to help reduce the severity and duration of your symptoms, and to help lower your risk for complications while you wait for your condition to resolve:33,34,35

Give your stomach time to settle — Avoid eating for the first few hours after the onset of food poisoning symptoms to allow your stomach time to settle down.

Drink lots of fluids — Rehydrate by drinking water or homemade bone broth. Start with small sips, and then gradually increase your intake as you feel better. One way to tell if you’re properly hydrated is by checking the color of your urine. Clear, light-colored urine means you’re getting enough fluids, whereas dark-colored urine means you’re dehydrated.

Eat bland foods — Once the vomiting stops and you feel ready to eat again, start with small servings of bland and easy-to-digest foods such as bananas or chicken. Stop eating if you start to feel nauseous again.

Avoid foods that can exacerbate your symptoms — Steer clear of foods that may further irritate your gastrointestinal tract. These include processed foods, sugary drinks, alcohol, caffeine and spicy foods.

Get plenty of rest — Since the symptoms of food poisoning can tire you out, it’s best to stay at home and get plenty of rest. Doing this also reduces the risk for spreading the disease-causing organisms to other people.

foo poisoning symptoms

Food poisoning when pregnant: What to do

Since your immune system is weaker during pregnancy, your body may find it hard to fight off foodborne organisms that could make you sick. One of the common forms of food poisoning in pregnant women is listeriosis.

According to a study published in the journal ISRN Obstetrics and Gynecology, pregnant women are 20 times more likely to acquire listeria infection than healthy adults.36 These bacteria can be passed to the baby, causing miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth, low birthweight or life-threatening newborn infections like meningitis.37

While listeria infection is often asymptomatic during pregnancy, cases of food poisoning caused by other organisms may still produce the hallmark symptoms of this illness, which include vomiting, nausea, diarrhea and abdominal pain.

If you’re having these symptoms while pregnant, call your doctor right away to get a proper diagnosis and to determine the right approach for treatment. Mild cases of food poisoning during pregnancy may be managed at home using the same treatment methods mentioned above, whereas severe cases may require hospital care.38,39

What to eat after food poisoning

After the symptoms of food poisoning have run their course, you should gradually add beneficial food back into your diet to help speed up your recovery. The BRAT diet, which stands for banana, rice, applesauce and toast, was previously recommended for individuals with stomach illness because it supposedly helps firm up stool. However, it’s no longer recommended today, as it lacks nutrition to help your GI tract recover from illness. Here’s what you should eat instead to improve your gut health:

Organic bone broth Bone broth contains amino acids like glutamine,40 which has been found to help promote healthy gut function and immune system.41 Sipping bone broth may also help nourish your body with a wide array of nutrients, including calcium, magnesium and collagen.42,43

Fermented foods Fermented foods such as kimchi, raw kefir and fermented vegetables are an excellent source of probiotics that may help reestablish your gut health and improve your immune function.44,45

Organic psyllium — Psyllium is rich in both soluble and insoluble fiber, which may help support healthy gastrointestinal microbiota.46 Other good sources of dietary fibers include flax and chia seeds.

4 steps to lower your risk of food poisoning

Food poisoning can be avoided if you practice precaution when handling and cooking food. Here are the four simple steps that CDC recommends to improve food safety:47,48

Clean — Your kitchen, including your eating and cooking utensils, is home to a wide array of pathogenic bacteria that can contaminate your food. This is why it’s important to regularly wash your hands and the surfaces where you prepare your food. Make sure you rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under running water as well.

Separate — Be sure to separate raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs from ready-to-eat foods to avoid the cross-contamination of germs. You should also use different cutting boards and plates for raw meats, poultry and seafood.

Cook — Always cook your food to the right temperature. Use a food thermometer to check if your foods meet the following safe internal temperature recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture:49

Poultry — 165 degrees Fahrenheit

Beef, pork, lamb and veal — 145 degrees Fahrenheit

Ground beef and pork — 160 degrees Fahrenheit

Ground poultry — 165 degrees Fahrenheit

Combination dishes — 165 degrees Fahrenheit

Chill — Pathogenic organisms thrive in room temperature. Normally, they can grow in many foods left on the counter within two hours, and during the summer, they can grow within just one hour. Be sure to refrigerate your foods promptly, and keep your refrigerator below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

Frequently asked questions (FAQs)

Q: How do you know if you have food poisoning?

A: The symptoms of food poisoning usually occur a few hours after consuming contaminated food or drink. Some of its first signs include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain and fever.50

Q: What does food poisoning feel like?

A: The severity of food poisoning symptoms range from mild to severe, depending on what type of organism infected you. Aside from experiencing its initial warning signs, you may also have the following symptoms if your case is severe:51

  • Inability to keep liquids down
  • Bloody vomit or stools
  • Extreme abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea for more than three days
  • Dehydration
  • Oral temperature of more than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Neurological symptoms like blurry vision and muscle weakness

Q: How long does it take for the symptoms of food poisoning to occur?

A: The onset of food poisoning symptoms varies according to the type of pathogenic organism consumed. You may develop symptoms within a few hours after eating contaminated food, or it may take several days before you experience any symptoms.52

+ Sources and References
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