Signs and Symptoms of Food Poisoning

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symptoms of food poisoningKnowing how to recognize the signs and symptoms of food poisoning is just one part of staying healthy.

It’s also important to know what steps to take as part of food poisoning treatment and prevention, especially if you don’t want to be one of the roughly 48 million Americans who suffer from food poisoning each year. If you do happen to get it, then you’ll want to know how long food poisoning symptoms last and what to do about them.

Food poisoning is a catch-all term for any illness acquired from eating food that has been contaminated with salmonella, e. coli, norovirus, or any one of the 250 bacterial, viral, or parasitic pathogens linked to foodborne disease.

These pathogens can enter your food when it is harvested, processed, packed, stored on the store shelf, cooked and served to you in a restaurant, or even prepared at home.
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What are the Symptoms of Food Poisoning?

Salmonella food poisoning symptoms include diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and fever. These symptoms aren’t exclusive to salmonella, however, and there are also other symptoms shared by the many different pathogens that can be behind any given case of food poisoning, including:

  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Loss of appetite

Viral causes are more likely to present with fever, headache, and chills than bacteria or parasites. Parasites are more likely to take longer to show their symptoms and can cause aches, cramps, and weakness more often.

In addition to the above, general symptoms, there are some food poisoning signs that warrant medical attention. Should you experience any of the following, seek your doctor or a hospital visit at the earliest opportunity.

  • Inability to keep liquids down due to excessive vomiting
  • Bloody vomit or stools
  • Diarrhea that lasts more than three days
  • Severe abdominal cramping or pain
  • An orally taken temperature higher than 101.5 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Signs of dehydration such as dry mouth, little to no urine production, severe weakness, dizziness or lightheadedness, and excessive thirst
  • Any neurological symptoms such as blurry vision, muscle weakness, or tingling in the arms

When describing your symptoms to your doctor, it’s important to be as specific as possible. Although many signs of food poisoning overlap, there can be certain intensities and traits that can help narrow down the diagnosis.

  • How much blood or mucus is in your stool (if any), how watery your diarrhea is, and the frequency of your bathroom visits.
  • The nature of any abdominal pain you experience. Is it more of a throb, an ache, or a stabbing sensation? Is the area tender?
  • Keep in mind anything you have eaten within the past few days. Not all foodborne illnesses thrive in the same types of food, so knowing possible contamination sources can help narrow things down.

How Long Do Food Poisoning Symptoms Last?

The onset of food poisoning symptoms will vary depending on the cause. Usually, however, symptoms will appear within a few hours or days after eating the offending meal. The duration of food poisoning depends on individual response as well as the pathogen, but it can take several hours to around a week to recover. For most people, the worst of it is over in about 48 hours.

What Can You Eat When You Have Food Poisoning Symptoms?

As mentioned, food poisoning can have a duration that stretches into days or, rarely, weeks. While recovering, you may not be able to stick to your normal diet without aggravating your symptoms. It’s important to make the lifestyle and diet adjustments needed to minimize discomfort and speed your recovery.

Fluids
Vomiting and diarrhea can make it easy to get dehydrated so a first step in any treatment for food poisoning is to find a way to get fluids into your body. Mild drinks like water, flat soda (ginger ale, ideally), weak teas (chamomile, peppermint, dandelion, etc.), soup broth, or apple juice should be used. Take small sips every few minutes and avoid drinking within an hour of having vomited. Sucking on ice chips can be another way to get fluid into your body if straight liquid isn’t working out.

BRAT Foods
You should ideally stick to liquid for at least a day when suffering food poisoning. As you get better, you can start trying to add solids to your diet. BRAT stands for bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast, representing four bland foods you can use to ease yourself back into eating. Cooked cereals like oatmeal and soda crackers are also viable.

Soft Foods
Next, try to add in more complex foods while keeping things simple. Soft-cooked eggs, stewed fruits, and cooked or steamed vegetables can offer extra nutrition while still being easy for you to swallow and digest. For sweets, try popsicles, Jell-o, or dairy-free pudding.

Which Home Remedies Fight Against Food Poisoning Symptoms?

There aren’t many medical treatments available for food poisoning due to the short duration of most cases and the potential difficulty in keeping medication down. There are, however, a few basic home remedies you can employ to help speed your recovery along.

1. Sports Drinks
In addition to dehydration, the vomiting and diarrhea of food poisoning can throw off your electrolyte levels. Sports drinks like Gatorade can be used for both hydration and to help restore an electrolyte balance.

2. Rest
Simple bed rest can do wonders as a food poisoning treatment. Not only does this let you recover from the physical and mental strain, but it allows your body to focus on fighting off the infection and devote more resources and energy to the immune response. Make yourself comfortable in a cool environment, fluff your pillow, and lie back.

Over-the-counter treatments like Pepto-Bismol can also be used to try to control diarrhea, nausea, stomach cramps, and other food poisoning symptoms. Your doctor may also prescribe further treatments depending on what the underlying cause is. Although it can be tempting, you should avoid taking antibiotics unless a bacterium has been confirmed to be responsible for your illness.

Lifestyle Changes to Make When Suffering from Food Poisoning Symptoms

One of the best things you can do to help your recovery from food poisoning is to avoid high-risk foods, such as caffeine, alcohol, dairy, or carbonated drinks. Greasy, spicy, and fried foods also shouldn’t be eaten until you are back to normal; your digestive system is too sensitive during this time and any of those can provoke food poisoning symptoms. Other lifestyle changes you can make include taking note of when and where the food poisoning occurred—if it was after a restaurant meal, don’t go there anymore. In fact, it might be a better idea to do more cooking at home, where you can better control the variables that might lead to food poisoning. If the food poisoning happened at home, well, the following section can help you with that.

Preventing Food Poisoning Symptoms

Although you cannot control what goes on in a restaurant kitchen or factory floor, there are some steps you can take at home to keep yourself safe from food poisoning.

  • Wash your hands with warm, soapy water before and after handling or preparing any food. The same goes for utensils, cutting boards, or other preparation surfaces.
  • Avoid cross-contamination. Keep raw foods away from ready-to-eat foods when shopping, storing, or preparing. Don’t use the same utensils and surfaces to prepare raw meat and other ingredients without cleaning them properly first.
  • Cook meat thoroughly and to a safe temperature. That means 160 degrees Fahrenheit for ground beef, 145 degrees Fahrenheit for steak, pork chops, and veal. To stop yourself from getting food poisoning symptoms from chicken and turkey, cook them to 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Refrigerate perishable foods as soon as possible and don’t thaw them at room temperature—use the fridge or microwave whenever possible.
  • When in doubt, throw it out!

Sources for Today’s Article:
“Foodborne Germs and Illnesses,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention web site, December 21, 2015; http://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/foodborne-germs.html, last accessed March 11, 2016.
Collins, S. “What Can I Eat after Having Food Poisoning?” Livestrong web site, April 13, 2015; http://www.livestrong.com/article/257470-what-can-i-eat-after-having-food-poisoning/, last accessed March 11, 2016.
“Food Poisoning – Prevention,” Mayo Clinic, July 24, 2014; http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/food-poisoning/basics/prevention/con-20031705, last accessed March 11, 2016.
Selner, M., et al, “Food Poisoning,” Healthline web site; http://www.healthline.com/health/food-poisoning#Overview1, last accessed March 11, 2016.


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Dr. Jeffrey Shapiro, MD

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After receiving athletic and academic awards at Yale and Stanford, Jeff has coached those seeking peak wellness, appeared on ABC News 20/20 and served as a consultant for CBS News 60 Minutes and The Late Show with David Letterman. As the author of many research studies and practicing anesthesiology/critical care medicine for more than 20 years, Jeff can be your guide to common sense decision making regarding drugs, supplements and vitamins. With no corporate sponsors and no vitamins or supplements... Read Full Bio »