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Food poisoning: Symptoms and treatment

You're at a grill-out enjoying good company and tasty food. Later on, you're sitting at the bonfire, and everything stops. Something doesn’t feel right. Did your friend’s take on the Impossible Burger betray your stomach?

Food poisoning is uncomfortable and disruptive, and there’s never a good time to get sick. Keep reading to explore the signs of food poisoning, find out what causes foodborne illness and get the right care.

Food poisoning symptoms

Most people experience food poisoning at some point. Your food poisoning symptoms may vary depending on the type of harmful bacteria you encounter. Signs of food poisoning typically start within a few hours after eating.

Signs and symptoms of foodborne illness or food poisoning include:

  • an upset stomach
  • abdominal pain and stomach cramps
  • tingling sensation in the face
  • headache
  • nausea and vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • a low fever
  • chills
  • dizziness
  • loss of appetite
  • body fatigue.

What causes food poisoning?

Food poisoning is a foodborne illness that occurs if you eat spoiled or contaminated food containing bacteria, viruses, parasites or toxins. Types of food poisoning include noroviruses, rotavirus, salmonella poisoning, clostridium perfrigens, listeria and E. coli.

Is it food poisoning or stomach flu?

Stomach flu and food poisoning symptoms often overlap, like vomiting, diarrhea and stomach pain. The most significant difference between stomach flu and food poisoning is how quickly your symptoms start.

Food poisoning is a foodborne illness caused by swallowing food contaminated by bacteria, viruses or parasites. Symptoms unique to food poisoning include nausea, weakness and bloody or watery diarrhea. Food poisoning isn’t contagious like the stomach flu, but it can affect people eating from the same food source.

Stomach flu, or gastroenteritis, is often caused by norovirus or rotavirus. Symptoms unique to the stomach flu include getting the chills, muscle aches and headaches. Stomach flu symptoms usually start 1-3 days after getting certain viruses.

Your stomach flu symptoms will likely last a day or two, but sometimes they last up to two weeks. The stomach flu can spread from person-to-person contact. Your stomach flu can be contagious for a few days and up to two weeks or more.

Food poisoning treatment

Most types of food poisoning are treatable at home. Foodborne illness treatments vary from person to person based on the type of food illness and your health history. Most people recover from food poisoning within 48 hours.

For mild cases of foodborne illness requiring care after hours, get care now – virtually or in person. 

Stay hydrated

If you have food poisoning, drink plenty of water to stay hydrated. Diarrhea and vomiting can make you lose fluids quickly and cause dehydration. Drinks with electrolytes can treat mild dehydration by replacing the body fluids and minerals lost to diarrhea. 

Get enough rest

Recovering from food poisoning is exhausting and can make it feel like your stomach is fighting for its life. While you have a lot of responsibilities, it’s important to get enough rest so your body can fully recover. Get sleep care if you develop insomnia after your food poisoning recovery.

Try the BRAT diet 

Not to be mistaken for a sausage-only diet, the BRAT diet includes bananas, rice, applesauce and toast. Many people use the BRAT diet to transition to real food toward the end of their food poisoning recovery. The diet helps reintroduce you to foods that are easier on the stomach.

Bananas, rice, applesauce and toast are high in starch and potassium, which can help reduce diarrhea and replace electrolytes. You can also try other foods such as clear broths, saltine crackers, baked chicken without skin and oatmeal.

Consider probiotics

Food poisoning disrupts your gut’s balance of good and bad bacteria. Probiotics are good bacteria that can improve gut health as you recover from food poisoning or foodborne illness by restoring the balance. Learn how to improve gut health by exploring the best healthy foods with probiotics and other healthy nutrients. Probiotics are safe for most people and have few side effects. Remember to keep your probiotics refrigerated.

However, probiotics aren’t for everyone, and the health benefits aren’t fully scientifically proven. Some probiotic supplements and foods can cause health complications for people with weakened immune systems or other serious illnesses. Contact your health care provider before starting probiotics. He or she can help you safely find how to keep your gut healthy. 

Take over-the-counter medications

Your health care provider may recommend over-the-counter medicine for food poisoning symptoms.

  • Pepto-Bismol® (bismuth subsalicylate) can treat an upset stomach and diarrhea.
  • Imodium® (Loperamide) to treat mild diarrhea.
  • Tylenol® to treat a fever.

Some health care providers may recommend against over-the-counter food poisoning treatments if they think it’s better to heal naturally. Antibiotic treatment for food poisoning is for bacterial infections and isn’t effective against viruses.

Are foodborne illnesses dangerous?

Foodborne illness isn’t serious for most people. However, some people have more risk of a severe foodborne illness, and the condition can be fatal without immediate treatment. According to the CDC, about one in six people in the U.S. get a foodborne illness every year, with 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths.

People at higher risk include:

  • Adults 65 and older. Your immune system becomes less effective as you age and more vulnerable to
  • children 5 and younger
  • people with conditions that weaken the immune system (immunocompromised), such as HIV/AIDS and diabetes
  • Pregnant women.

When to get immediate treatment for food poisoning

Call 911 or visit the closest emergency room if you need care right away. Your health care provider may give you IV fluids for severe dehydration.

Get medical attention right away if you:

  • are in a high-risk group
  • have bloody diarrhea or if diarrhea lasts more than three days
  • can‘t keep food or liquids down for more than 24 hours
  • have a fever temperature above 100.4° F or a fever that does not improve with acetaminophen (Tylenol®)
  • are vomiting frequently and can’t keep liquids down
  • have bloody vomit or stools
  • experience serious pain or abdominal cramping
  • have symptoms of dehydration – extreme thirst, trouble urinating, a dry mouth, significant weakness or dizziness
  • blurry vision, muscle weakness and a tingling sensation in the arms.

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