When Should I Worry About...

Food Poisoning: How to Know If You Have It & How Long It Can Last

Jan. 5, 2023 - Katie McCallum

The U.S. may enjoy the safest food supply in the world, but according to the CDC, 1 in 6 Americans annually gets sick by consuming contaminated foods or beverages, otherwise known as food poisoning.

When you suspect it may have happened to you, some questions arise:

  • Is it really food poisoning?
  • How long does food poisoning last?
  • What should you do for food poisoning?

The reality is, these questions are tough for the average person to answer at home.

Everything from the signs you might have food poisoning to what to do about it can depend on a wide range of factors.

Still, food poisoning can be a serious, sometimes life-threatening illness. This means it's important to understand the basics, including what causes food poisoning, the symptoms that can occur and how it should be treated.

What is food poisoning?

Food poisoning occurs when a person eats food that's contaminated with an infectious germ. Several bacteria and even some viruses are capable of causing foodborne illness.

Contamination with one of these germs can happen during:

  • Food manufacturing, processing and packaging
  • Food storage
  • Food preparation, usually via cross contamination, improper handling of food or incomplete cooking of food

How to know if you have food poisoning

Food poisoning symptoms can include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach pain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fever

That said, the signs of food poisoning vary by the germ causing illness, as do the timing of these symptoms and how long they might last.

How to treat food poisoning

Food poisoning treatment varies depending on symptom severity and even on the suspected source of the illness in some cases.

What to do for mild food poisoning

According to the CDC, mild food poisoning symptoms typically don't require medical care or antibiotics and can be managed at home by getting plenty of rest and staying hydrated.

If you are experiencing diarrhea, vomiting or nausea, you can help prevent dehydration by:

  • Sucking on ice chips or taking small sips of water until your stomach settles
  • Replacing lost fluid and electrolytes by drinking water, a sports drink or clear soda, broth and eating salty, bland food, like plain crackers
  • Avoiding alcohol and excessive caffeine

Oral rehydration solutions can also be used to help you stay hydrated. Over-the-counter anti-diarrheal medications may help relieve diarrhea in adults, but it's recommended that you consult your doctor first.

Once your stomach settles and your appetite returns, choose bland foods, such as:

  • Plain crackers
  • Toast
  • Bananas
  • Rice

Avoid dairy products and fatty or highly seasoned foods.

What to do for serious food poisoning symptoms

If food poisoning symptoms become serious, consult your doctor. He or she may prescribe antibiotics to help treat the infection or recommend IV fluids.

Severe food poisoning symptoms in adults include:

  • Bloody diarrhea
  • Diarrhea that continues for 72+ hours
  • Fever higher than 102ºF
  • Frequent vomiting that keeps you from keeping fluids down
  • Decreased urination
  • Dry mouth and throat
  • Dehydration, often characterized by weakness, dizziness or lightheadedness when standing

Some sources of foodborne illness are more concerning for certain people and may warrant medical care regardless of symptom severity.

For instance, Listeria infection can affect a pregnant woman's unborn baby. Prompt antibiotic treatment may help reduce this risk.

And E. coli food poisoning can sometimes cause serious complications (including kidney failure) in children under age 5, people with weakened immune systems and older adults.

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