Food poisoning is an illness that happens after you eat food or drink beverages that are contaminated by (contain) harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites, or toxins. It’s common - almost everyone gets food poisoning at least once.
Symptoms of food poisoning depend on exactly what you ate or drank and how your body reacts. You may have nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps and fever.
Many people use the term “food poisoning” for all foodborne illnesses. However, “food poisoning” refers to illness only from food that contains a toxin. “Foodborne illnesses” refers to illnesses from any type of contaminant in food, like an allergen.
It’s often hard to know exactly which food made you sick. Food poisoning symptoms sometimes start within 30 minutes, but it can also take up to two weeks before you get sick. Occasionally, multiple people eat the same food, but don’t all get sick. It depends on how each person’s body reacts.
There are many different ways foods can get contaminated:
More than 250 substances, including bacteria, viruses, parasites, toxins, fungi, molds and chemicals can cause food poisoning. Some include:
Some foods are more likely to cause food poisoning than others. It’s a good idea to be especially careful with:
Food can be contaminated at any stage, including processing, storage and preparation. To lower your risk of food poisoning, you should:
Some types of food poisoning are contagious (can be passed from person to person). It depends on what’s causing the infection. Certain germs can survive on hands or surfaces and spread to other people. If someone with food poisoning prepares food in a restaurant, grocery store or home kitchen, they could contaminate the food they are making.
Your symptoms can vary depending on what you ate and how it’s affecting your body. Common symptoms of food poisoning include:
Some dangerous types of food poisoning can affect the nervous system. In that case, you may have:
The stomach flu (gastroenteritis) and food poisoning can have the same symptoms. Many of the same viruses, bacteria, toxins and parasites can cause stomach flu and food poisoning – the only difference is the source. If you became infected from food, it’s food poisoning. If you became infected from something else, it’s stomach flu.
If you think you have food poisoning but aren’t sure where you got it, there is a good chance it is the stomach flu. It is possible that something infected you when you touched a contaminated surface or were swimming or exposed to outdoor water. You can also be infected by animals.
Most of the time, you can treat food poisoning at home. You should feel better within a few days, and sometimes it clears up within hours. If you’re vomiting, have diarrhea or have a fever, you can lose a lot of water. It’s important to prevent dehydration. Stay hydrated by sucking on ice chips or taking small sips of fluids. Good choices are:
You’ll want to get plenty of rest and gradually introduce small portions of bland foods when you feel ready to eat. Start with things like:
Avoid fizzy drinks, fatty foods, spicy or strongly flavored foods, dairy, caffeine, alcohol and nicotine. Take a break from eating if your symptoms return.
Some over-the-counter (OTC) medications can help with your symptoms. Loperamide (Imodium A-D) can treat diarrhea and bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol) can help with nausea and vomiting. You’ll want to talk to a health care provider or pharmacist for help on using these medications since vomiting and diarrhea are your body’s ways of getting the contaminants out. These medications aren’t recommended for children.
As you return to a regular diet, be sure to practice good food hygiene habits and be cautious about your food choices. That will help reduce the odds that you get food poisoning again.
Sometimes, food poisoning can cause serious complications. If your food poisoning symptoms are severe or last more than a few days, contact a health care provider.
For children, contact your pediatrician if your child has:
For adults, contact your primary care provider if you have:
These people should be especially cautious and seek medical advice promptly. They are more likely to get food poisoning and more likely to develop complications:
To diagnose food poisoning, your provider will likely ask you about your symptoms, what you’ve recently eaten, symptoms in other people near you, any medication changes and any recent travel (you may be more likely to be infected outside the United States). They may want you to have your blood or stool tested. They may also test your urine to see if you’re dehydrated.
Your provider might recommend fluids, antibiotics or antiparasitics to fight the infection or probiotics to help increase the good bacteria in your digestive tract. In severe cases, especially with dehydration, you may need hospitalization and intravenous (IV) fluids.
While food poisoning usually goes away without complications, in rare cases it can cause more serious, long-term problems such as:
If you think you got food poisoning from a restaurant, grocery store or other food establishment, you should report it to your local health department. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), you should report it even if you don’t know what made you sick. Reporting can help officials identify an outbreak, notify the public and take steps to stop it.
If you think you or someone in your family may have food poisoning and you’re concerned about the symptoms, visit a Banner Urgent Care near you for advice and help.