What Is food poisoning?

Food poisoning usually isn't dangerous and affects millions every year. Serious cases can be treated with medication and home care. Anti-diarrhea medicines, such as Pepto-Bismol or Imodium help along with pain relievers and fever reducers such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen.
Food poisoning usually isn't dangerous and affects millions every year. Serious cases can be treated with medication and home care. Anti-diarrhea medicines, such as Pepto-Bismol or Imodium help along with pain relievers and fever reducers such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen.

Food poisoning affects millions of Americans every year. Most of the time, it isn’t dangerous. There are some people who may have more serious risks, but you can usually treat food poisoning at home with different medicines and home care practices.

Food poisoning occurs when you eat food or drink water contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites, allergens, or toxins. The first three of these are germs that grow in your body and then spread as an infection that makes you sick.

Symptoms of food poisoning

Food poisoning is often mistaken for stomach flu. Symptoms can start as soon as 30 minutes after you eat or drink a contaminated substance. You can also experience them as late as three weeks after ingesting the microbe or other contaminant. Many people don’t realize they have food poisoning.

Some signs of food poisoning include:

Causes of food poisoning

Food poisoning is caused by bacteria, viruses, parasites, or toxins in food and/or liquids that you ingest. Germs typically cause the infection that makes you sick. 

Bacteria in food can also release toxins called enterotoxins or neurotoxins. Food poisoning will usually occur when you consume foods that have these toxins. 

Some types of pathogens that commonly cause food poisoning include:

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Who can get food poisoning

Anyone who eats or drinks contaminated food or water can get food poisoning. Children who are under the age of five years and people who are older than 65 are more likely to get sick with food poisoning. These groups may have a more serious illness, as their immune systems are less effective. 

People with weakened immune systems from diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, or from medical treatment like chemotherapy are also at greater risk. 

Pregnant women are also more at risk for food poisoning. They are more likely to get sick from certain germs like listeria.

Diagnosis for food poisoning

Your doctor will do a physical examination and look for signs of food poisoning. Symptoms may include pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration. Your doctor may ask you about how long you’ve been sick, the foods that you’ve eaten, and if you’ve recently travelled anywhere.

Your doctor may also test the food that you ate or your stool. This will help determine which germ is making you sick.

Treatment for food poisoning

Food poisoning can be treated at home the same way that you treat stomach flu. Most of the time, symptoms will pass on their own and you will get better within a week. Food poisoning medicine isn’t usually necessary, but there may be times you need it. Either way, your goal is to stay hydrated and to rest in order to relieve your symptoms.

Medications 

In certain cases you will need to treat food poisoning with medicine. Your doctor may recommend antibiotics, but these will only work if you have a bacterial infection. If you have a parasite infection, your doctor may prescribe anti-parasite medication. 

You may be able to treat food poisoning with over-the-counter food poisoning medication from your pharmacy, including:

If you have bloody diarrhea or a fever, these are signs that you have a bacterial or parasitic infection. Do not take anti-diarrhea medicines as they may make your infection worse. You should not give these medicines to children either. Speak to a doctor about your symptoms.

Home care

The most important part of treating food poisoning isn’t always medicine, but keeping fluids and minerals in your body. To manage your symptoms at home, try to:

  • Rest 
  • Drink plenty of fluids, including juice, water, broths, and oral rehydration drinks (Pedialite or Ceralyte)
  • Eat saltine crackers
  • Eat normal food after the nausea and vomiting passes

Alternative therapies

Sometimes doctors recommend probiotics. These are live bacteria that are similar to the bacteria and microbes you usually have in your gut. Studies show that probiotics can help reduce diarrhea, but researchers are still studying whether they can treat food poisoning.

Risks of food poisoning

Most of the time, food poisoning isn’t serious and you can safely treat it at home. It will usually pass on its own. However, children under the age of five, pregnant women, and people with chronic illnesses or certain medical treatments that cause a weakened immune system are more likely to get it and to get very sick.

The most important part of managing food poisoning is staying hydrated. Fluid loss can lead to dehydration. In severe cases, you may need to be hospitalized. 

Some infections can lead to serious long-term effects, including:

These risks are rare in people who are generally healthy and who live in the United States.

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Medically Reviewed on 2/2/2021
References
AIMS Microbiology: "Foodborne pathogens."

Centers for Disease Prevention and Control: "People With a Higher Risk."

FoodSafety.gov: "Food Poisoning."

Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Food Poisoning."

National Health Service: "Food poisoning."

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Diagnosis of Food Poisoning."

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Treatment for Food Poisoning."