Food poisoning is a common, usually mild, but sometimes deadly illness. Typical symptoms include nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramping, and diarrhea that occur suddenly (within 48 hours) after consuming a contaminated food or drink. Depending on the contaminant, fever and chills, bloody stools, dehydration, and nervous system damage may follow. These symptoms may affect one person or a group of people who ate the same thing (called an outbreak).
The known causes of food poisoning can be divided into two categories: infectious agents and toxic agents.
- Infectious agents include viruses, bacteria, and parasites.
- Toxic agents include poisonous mushrooms, improperly prepared exotic foods (such as barracuda - ciguatera toxin), or pesticides on fruits and vegetables.
Food usually becomes contaminated from poor sanitation or preparation. Food handlers who do not wash their hands after using the bathroom or have infections themselves often cause contamination. Improperly packaged food stored at the wrong temperature also promotes contamination. Food poisoning may also occur when fruits and vegetables infested with heavy dose of pesticide are consumed. It is advised to wash vegetables with salt water before consuming.
Food Poisoning Symptoms
Symptoms of food poisoning depend on the type of contaminant and the amount eaten. The symptoms can develop rapidly, within 30 minutes, or slowly, worsening over days to weeks. Most of the common contaminants cause:
- abdominal cramping
Usually food poisoning is not serious, and the illness runs its course in 24-48 hours.
When to Seek Medical Care
Contact your doctor if any of the following situations occur:
- Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea lasts for more than two days.
- The ill person is a child younger than three years of age.
- The abdominal symptoms are associated with a low-grade fever.
- Symptoms begin after recent foreign travel.
- Other family members or friends who ate the same thing are also sick.
- The ill person cannot keep any liquids down.
- The ill person does not improve within two days even though they are drinking large amounts of fluids.
- The ill person has a disease or illness that weakens their immune system (for example, HIV/AIDS, cancer and undergoing chemotherapy, kidney disease).
- The ill person cannot take their normal prescribed medications because of vomiting.
- The ill person has any nervous system symptoms such as slurred speech, muscle weakness, double vision, or difficulty swallowing.
- The ill person is pregnant.
Go to the nearest hospital’s emergency department if any of the following situations occur:
- The ill person passes out or collapse, become dizzy, lightheaded, or has problems with vision.
- A fever higher than 101 F (38.3 C) occurs with the abdominal symptoms.
- Sharp or cramping pains do not go away after 10-15 minutes.
- The ill person’s stomach or abdomen swells.
- The skin and/or eyes turn yellow.
- The ill person is vomiting blood or having bloody bowel movements.
- The ill person stops urinating, have decreased urination, or have urine that is dark in color.
- The ill person develops problems with breathing, speaking, or swallowing.
- One or more joints swell or a rash breaks out on the ill person’s skin.
- The ill person or caretaker considers the situation to be an emergency.
Food Poisoning Treatment
Food Poisoning Self-Care at Home
Short episodes of vomiting and small amounts of diarrhea lasting less than 24 hours can usually be cared for at home.
- Do not eat solid food while nauseous or vomiting but drink plenty of fluids.
- Small, frequent sips of clear liquids (those you can see through) are the best way to stay hydrated.
- Avoid alcoholic, caffeinated, or sugary drinks. Over-the-counter rehydration products made for children such as Pedialyte and Rehydralyte are expensive but good to use if available.
- Sports drinks such as Gatorade and Electral are fine for adults if they are diluted with water because at full strength they contain too much sugar, which can worsen diarrhea.
- Home remedies to treat nausea or diarrhea such as tea with lemon and ginger can be used for relief from symptoms. There are no proven herbal food poisoning cures. Consult a health care practitioner before taking any natural food poisoning remedies.
- After successfully tolerating fluids, eating should begin slowly, when nausea and vomiting have stopped. Plain foods that are easy on the stomach should be started in small amounts. Initially consider eating rice, wheat, breads, potatoes, low-sugar cereals, lean meats, and chicken (not fried). Milk can be given safely, although some people may experience additional stomach upset due to lactose intolerance.
- Most food poisonings do not require the use of over-the-counter medicines to stop diarrhea, but they are generally safe if used as directed. It is not recommended that these medications be used to treat children. If there is a question or concern, always check with a doctor.
Food Poisoning Medical Treatment
The main treatment for food poisoning is replacing fluids into the body (rehydration) through an IV and by drinking. The patient may need to be admitted to the hospital. This depends on the severity of the dehydration, response to therapy, and ability to drink fluids without vomiting. Children, in particular, may need close observation.
- Anti-vomiting and diarrhea medications may be given.
- The doctor may also treat any fever to make the patient more comfortable.
- Antibiotics are rarely needed for food poisoning. In some cases, antibiotics worsen the condition. Only a few specific causes of food poisoning are improved by using these medications. The length of illness with traveler’s diarrhea (shigellae) can be decreased with antibiotics, but this specific illness usually runs its course and improves without treatment.
- With mushroom poisoning or eating foods contaminated with pesticides, aggressive treatment may include intravenous (IV) fluids, emergency intervention for life-threatening symptoms, and giving medications such as antidotes, such as activated charcoal. These poisonings are very serious and may require intensive care in the hospital
Food Poisoning Prevention
Safe steps in food handling, cooking, and storage are essential to avoiding food-borne illness. Bacteria cannot be seen, smelled, or tasted, and they may be on any food.
Follow the CDC food safety guidelines to keep contaminants away.
- Buy cold foods last during your shopping trip. Get them home fast.
- Never choose torn or leaking packages.
- Do not buy foods past their “sell-by” or expiration dates.
- Keep raw meat and poultry separate from other foods.
- Pregnant women should avoid foods that can carry Listeria and should discuss healthy foods during their pregnancy with their OB/GYN physician.
Safe storage of foods
- Keep it safe; refrigerate.
- Unload perishable foods first and immediately refrigerate them. Place raw meat, poultry, or fish in the coldest section of your refrigerator.
- Check the temperature of your appliances. To slow bacterial growth, the refrigerator should be at 40 F (4.44 C) , the freezer at 0 F (-17.7 C).
- Cook or freeze fresh poultry, fish, ground meats, and variety meats within two days.
Safe food preparation
- Keep everything clean!
- Wash hands before and after handling raw meat and poultry.
- Sanitize cutting boards often in a solution of one teaspoon chlorine bleach in one quart of water.
- Do not cross-contaminate. Keep raw meat, poultry, fish, and their juices away from other food. After cutting raw meats, wash hands, cutting board, knife, and counter tops with hot, soapy water.
- Marinate meat and poultry in a covered dish in the refrigerator. Discard any uncooked/unused marinade.
Thawing food safely
- Refrigerator: Allows slow, safe thawing. Make sure thawing juices do not drip on other foods.
- Cold water: For faster thawing, place food in a leak-proof plastic bag and submerge in cold tap water.
- Microwave: Cook meat and poultry immediately after microwave thawing.
- Use a meat thermometer
- Cook ground meats to 160 F (71 C)
- Cook ground poultry to 165 F (74 C)
- Cook beef, veal, and lamb steaks, roasts and chops to 145 F (63 C)
- Cook all cuts of fresh pork to 160 F (71 C).
- Whole poultry should reach 180 F (82 C) in the thigh; breasts 170 F (76.6 C).
- Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.
- Never leave food out more than two hours (or more than one hour in temperatures above 90 F [32 C]).
- Bacteria that cause food poisoning grow rapidly at room temperature.
- Use cooked leftovers within four days.