“Food poisoning” is a catch-all term to refer to any form of foodborne illness that is acquired from eating contaminated, spoiled, or otherwise toxic food. Food poisoning is also regrettably common.
Every year around one in six people will get at least one form of food poisoning within the U.S.
Most forms of food poisoning are thankfully short-lived but that doesn’t mean you have to be left to tough it out. Home remedies exist that can make getting through the illness much more tolerable.
Related Reading: How Long Do Food Poisoning Symptoms Last?
Causes of Food Poisoning
Food poisoning is usually the result of either bacteria or viruses that have contaminated a meal either as a result of a safety measure failing in production or by cross-contamination from another source.
- Bacteria: Bacteria are responsible for the majority of foodborne illnesses in the United States. They tend to thrive in unsanitary conditions and can come from almost any form of food that is not cooked, cleaned, or stored properly. Bacterial foodborne illnesses are often the result of either cross-contamination from raw meat or vegetables or what is called the “fecal-oral” route. This is a delicate way of saying that someone didn’t wash their hands properly and has contaminated the food with tiny bits of feces. Lastly, bacterial food poisoning can come from eggs laid by infected hens.
- Viral: Viruses are the second most common cause of food poisoning but unlike bacteria they are not often the result of something wrong with the food itself. Instead, viral poisonings are typically because someone involved in preparing the food was ill and didn’t properly wash themselves or their workplace before making the meal. Some viruses, like the norovirus, can also persist in an airborne form for some time after an episode of sneezing, coughing, or vomiting, and be transmitted that way.
Am I At Risk of Food Poisoning?
Everyone is vulnerable to contracting food poisoning and, statistically speaking, almost everyone will contract it at some point. Keep in mind that the elderly, children, people with compromised immune systems, and pregnant women are considered especially vulnerable during outbreaks.
Related Reading: Combating Food Poisoning in Adults and the Elderly
Food Poisoning Symptoms
Although there are multiple pathogens that can cause food poisoning, most cases present themselves with similar symptoms. Should you develop food poisoning, expect to develop some combination of the following:
- Abdominal cramps
- Diarrhea (watery and/or bloody)
- Loss of appetite
- Fever (usually mild or low-grade)
Cases of food poisoning are usually unpleasant but not life-threatening. This can change if the immune system is not up to the task of thwarting the infection or if the pathogen infiltrates certain parts of the body. Seek medical attention immediately if you show any of the following symptoms:
- Diarrhea persists for more than three days
- Fever is higher than 101.5 degrees Fahrenheit
- Extreme abdominal pain or cramping (“stabbing”)
- Blood vomit or diarrhea
- Vomiting is intense enough that you can’t keep liquids down
- Neurological symptoms like tingling in the extremities or blurred vision
- Dehydration (low urine production, dizziness/lightheadedness, dry mouth, etc.)
Home Remedies for Food Poisoning
It is rare for food poisoning to last more than a week and you should consult a doctor if this is the case. While many medicines are available over the counter to help combat food poisoning, they are not always required. Here are a few things to try at home to help your body recover and fight back:
- Get settled: Your stomach is in a precarious mood when it is affected by food poisoning, especially in the initial period. Take it easy and hold off on eating or drinking for a few hours until it settles down.
- Stay hydrated: This is extremely important, especially if you are having diarrhea. Sucking on ice chips or only taking small sips of water at a time can help get you the necessary fluids without aggravating your system too much. If you’re feeling better, try moving on to clear broths, sports drinks with electrolytes, or clear soft drinks like ginger ale. It’s best to avoid drinks with caffeine for now since those can agitate the stomach. You can tell how hydrated you are by looking at your pee. The lighter and clearer it is, the better you’re doing.
- Easing into eating: Bland, low-fat foods are easiest to digest and should be seen as a starting step in getting back to a normal diet. Soda crackers, toast, applesauce, bananas, and rice are all examples of foods that you should consider. If your stomach can tolerate it you can try probiotic yogurt to help return beneficial bacteria to your digestive tract, but be careful since dairy tends to be inadvisable during food poisoning. Always stop eating if your nausea returns.
- Avoid agitators: Caffeine, alcohol, most dairy products, spicy foods, and anything with a high fat or sugar content should be saved for after you’ve recovered. At best, these substances only aggravate your stomach and at worst they can make recovery harder.
- Medicines: Although not always needed, you can try over-the-counter treatments like “Pepto-Bismol” for relief. If you have a bacterial illness, antibiotics may help but are usually not called for unless you have a compromised immune system, are pregnant, or have acquired a listeria infection. It is important, however, not to take anti-diarrhea medication when dealing with food poisoning. As unpleasant as repeated bathroom trips can be, they are a way of expelling invaders from the body.
Food Poisoning Prevention and Protection
Prevention is always the best cure and it’s better to not get food poisoning in the first place. Proper preventative measures will drastically cut down on your risk of developing food poisoning.
- Wash hands, utensils, and surfaces: Do it before and after preparing food or doing anything involving raw meat. Use warm, soapy water for your hands but use hot water for utensils and surfaces like cutting boards or countertops. You should also wash fruits and vegetables well before eating or preparing them, even if they were bought pre-washed.
- Separate, don’t cross-contaminate: Keep raw food separated from ready-to-eat foods. When preparing meals, never use the same plates, utensils, or surfaces to handle raw meat as other foods.
- Cook well: A meat thermometer is the best way to tell the temperature of your cooking. Most pathogens will simply die if exposed to the right temperature. Ground beef is safe at 160 degrees Fahrenheit, steaks and chops are good at 145 degrees Fahrenheit, and poultry at 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Fish and shellfish are harder to gauge but should be cooked as thoroughly as possible.
- Defrost properly: Thawing at room temperature is inadvisable since it increases the chance that bacteria can grow or spread. If you need to defrost something you should do it in the refrigerator, microwave, or oven.
- When in doubt, throw it out!: It is always best to err on the side of caution. Food that is not stored properly, left out, or otherwise improperly handled can contain bacteria or toxins that will resist cooking temperatures. Err on the side of caution and dispose of food that you aren’t sure about.
Sources for Today’s Article:
“Food Poisoning,” Mayo Clinic web site, July 24, 2014; http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/food-poisoning/basics/definition/con-20031705.
Selner, M. et al., “Food Poisoning,” Healthline web site, October 27, 2015; http://www.healthline.com/health/food-poisoning#Overview1.