This informational guide, part of POPSUGAR’s Condition Center, lays out the realities of this health concern: what it is, what it can look like, and strategies that medical experts say are proven to help. You should always consult your doctor regarding matters pertaining to your health before starting any course of medical treatment.
Food poisoning occurs when people consume food contaminated with a bacteria, fungus, parasite, or virus — in other words, something toxic that humans shouldn’t eat. Your body responds by trying to remove the toxins, usually via vomiting, diarrhea, and/or fever. Even in mild cases, food poisoning can be extremely uncomfortable. But most people will go through it at some point in their lives. Below, find out what exactly causes food poisoning, potential complications, and how to treat it.
Understanding Food Poisoning
“Food poisoning is extremely common, with 48 million Americans getting sick from it each year. Still, there’s typicallynothing to stress about, since it often resolves quickly on its own and it’s usually not serious,” says Janice Johnston, MD, chief medical officer and cofounder of Redirect Health. “Symptom onset generally occurs within hours of eating contaminated food,” she adds.
Symptoms generally include diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, fever, headache, and general weakness. While these symptoms usually resolve themselves, Dr. Johnston says if you experience blood in vomit or stools; symptoms of dehydration (like excessive thirst, dry mouth, little to no urination, severe weakness, or dizziness); or symptoms that last more than three days, you should seek medical attention immediately. Persistent, untreated food poisoning can lead to severe dehydration and other health complications, per the Cleveland Clinic.
Causes of Food Poisoning and Complications
The cause of food poisoning is contaminated food, which Dr. Johnston says can happen at any point during production, including growing, harvesting, storing, shipping, or preparing food.
“The most common issue occurs when harmful organisms are transferred from one surface to the other, otherwise known as cross-contamination. Foods which are contaminated most frequently are raw, ready-to-eat foods such as salad and other produce because they aren’t cooked before eating them, which destroys the harmful organisms,” Dr. Johnston says. Once the body starts to digest the contaminated food, symptoms can appear within a few hours to a few days and can last up to a few days as well.
While anyone can get food poisoning, some people are at higher risk of getting sick and having more serious illness, including people 65 and older, children under 5 years old, pregnant people, and people with already weakened immune systems (the CDC lists diabetes, liver or kidney disease, HIV/AIDS, and cancer in particular). For those already more susceptible, the CDC recommends avoiding eating undercooked or raw animal products, unpasteurized milk or juices, soft cheeses (unless specifically noted to be made with pasteurized milk), and raw or lightly cooked sprouts.
Additionally, Dr. Johnston recommends washing all fruit and vegetables at home and fully cooking all food before eating.
The Most Effective Treatments For Food Poisoning
Treatment for food poisoning will be minimal in most cases and involve at-home remedies, as symptoms typically resolve on their own within a few days, Dr. Johnston says.
You want to start by replacing lost fluids and electrolytes in order to prevent dehydration. In addition to water, find drinks that contain sodium, potassium, and calcium (like Pedialyte, for example), Dr. Johnston advises. If you can tolerate food, you can also stick to the BRAT (bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast) diet for these same nutrients.
Dr. Johnston also suggests over-the-counter medication to help manage symptoms. She recommends medications like Pepto-Bismol or electrolyte-fueled drinks such as Gatorade.
However, if your symptoms last longer than three days or your stool contains blood, you should seek medical care. Replacing lost fluids and electrolytes by IV fluid may be necessary, Dr. Johnston says. And in some cases, depending on if the food poisoning is caused by bacteria, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics. If your symptoms are caused by viral food poisoning, Dr. Johnston says, antibiotics are not a treatment option.
If you’re unsure whether you’re experiencing food poisoning or not, don’t be afraid to reach out to your doctor.