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Food Poisoning - Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, Treatment and Prevention

Written by
Dr. Sneha Kannan
and medically reviewed by Dr. Jagdish Singh

Published on Oct 23, 2019   -  4 min read



Food poisoning is caused by eating food contaminated with bacteria or other pathogens, and it results in vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach pain. To know more, read the article.

Food Poisoning - Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, Treatment and Prevention

What Is Food Poisoning?

Food poisoning, otherwise called foodborne illness, is caused by eating food contaminated with infectious organisms (bacteria, viruses, and parasites) or toxins or eating spoiled food. Food can get contaminated at any stage of processing or production or preparation. The symptoms start within hours of eating food contaminated with toxins. The symptoms include nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Mostly, food poisoning is mild and does not require treatment. But in severe cases, it can cause dehydration and might require hospitalization.

It is a common infection, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 6 people in the US get some kind of food poisoning every year.

What Are the Symptoms of Food Poisoning?

Depending on the cause of infection, your symptoms and length of the symptoms can vary. As soon as you eat contaminated food, you might start having symptoms from anywhere after an hour to 28 days. The common symptoms of food poisoning are:

  • Stomach cramps.

  • Diarrhea.

  • Nausea.

  • Vomiting.

  • Loss of appetite.

  • Chills.

  • Muscle pain.

  • Fever.

  • Tiredness.

  • Headaches.

If you have the following symptoms, get immediate medical help:

What Are the Risk Factors for Food Poisoning?

People that are at a higher risk to develop food poisoning are children, pregnant women, older adults, immunocompromised individuals, and people with diabetes, liver or kidney disease.

What Are the Causes of Food Poisoning?

The common causes of food poisoning are:

Viruses and bacteria - Viruses are the number one cause of food poisoning followed by bacteria. The most common microorganisms that cause food poisoning are:

  1. Norovirus.

  2. Salmonella.

  3. Clostridium perfringens.

  4. Campylobacter.

  5. Staphylococcus aureus.

  6. Toxoplasma gondii.

  7. Escherichia coli (E. coli).

  8. Listeria monocytogenes.

  9. Shigella.

  10. Rotavirus.

  11. Hepatitis A.

Toxins - Toxins produced by bacteria, plants, and animals (fish) can cause food poisoning if they are ingested. The common toxins include:

  • Bacteria - Enterotoxins, Exotoxins, Neurotoxins.

  • Plants - Mushroom toxins, Ricin, Hemlock.

  • Animals - Scombroid toxin, Sasitoxin, Tetrodotoxin.

Parasites - Some of the parasites that can cause food poisoning are:

  • Amoeba

  • Giardia

  • Trichinella

Chemicals - Chemicals like mercury in drinking water and fish can enter the body and cause food poisoning. Even if chemicals like pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls, and lead in food, it can cause vomiting and diarrhea.

How Is Food Poisoning Diagnosed?

Your doctor will diagnose this condition after taking a detailed history of how long you are having symptoms and what food you have eaten. Your doctor will also look for signs of dehydration dry dry mouth.

If needed, your doctor will suggest getting diagnostic tests like a blood test and stool culture to identify the cause of food poisoning. The causative organism is detected in the stool sample sent to the laboratory.

How Is Food Poisoning Treated?

Food poisoning treatment depends on the cause and the severity of the symptoms. Most people get better on their own without any treatment in some days, but for some, it may last longer. The treatment includes:

  • Fluid replacement - Fluids and electrolytes like sodium, potassium, and calcium lost due to vomiting and diarrhea have to be replaced. Oral rehydration solutions (ORS) are commercially available for this purpose. For severe dehydration, fluids through IV (intravenous) has to be administered in the hospital.

  • Antibiotics - For infection caused by bacteria, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics. Infection caused by bacteria listeria is treated with IV antibiotics. In pregnant women, the infection can affect the baby, so antibiotics have to given promptly. Antibiotics will not be effective against food poisoning caused by viruses.

  • Loperamide and Bismuth subsalicylate - Can help adults with diarrhea.

Home Remedies:

Usually, food poisoning improves within 48 hours without treatment. To prevent complications like dehydration, try the following:

  • Avoid eating for a few hours and give your stomach some time to heal.

  • Rest.

  • Keep sippling water or ORS to prevent dehydration.

  • Start eating nonspicy and low-fat foods.

  • Avoid eating dairy products, caffeine, alcohol, and oily food.

  • Drink herbal tea.

What to Eat When You Have Food Poisoning?

Things that you can eat are:

  • Bananas.

  • Rice.

  • Clear soup.

  • Boiled vegetables.

  • Toast.

  • Fruit juices.

  • Oats.

What Not to Eat When You Have Food Poisoning?

Things you need to avoid are:

  • Milk and milk products.

  • High fatty food.

  • Sugary drinks.

  • Spicy food.

  • Fried foods.

  • Alcohol.

  • Caffeinated beverages.

Can Food Poisoning Be Prevented?

You can reduce the risk of food poisoning by:

  • Washing your hands frequently and properly.

  • Cook meats properly to the right temperature.

  • Do not mix raw food with cooked food.

  • Refrigerate food that will get spoiled properly.

  • Do not eat spoiled or old food.

  • Drink pasteurized milk.

  • Wash fruits and vegetables properly.

If your symptoms do not improve within 48 hours, it is best to consult a doctor. Persistent vomiting and diarrhea can result in severe dehydration, which can be life-threatening in infants, older adults, and immunocompromised individuals. For more information on food poisoning, consult a medical gastroenterologist online.


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Frequently Asked Questions


How Long Does Food Poisoning Last?

In most cases, the duration of food poisoning lasts for about one or two days. The symptoms usually resolve on their own. If symptoms persist longer than that, the patient should consult a doctor. Infections like Cyclospora may be difficult to identify and diarrhea may last for weeks.


What Are the Signs of Food Poisoning?

The signs of food poisoning are vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, muscle pain, fever, dehydration, nausea, and headache. The symptoms might usually resolve by itself.


What Are Ways to Prevent Food Poisoning?

Always wash your hands before and after cooking food. Wash the utensils, cutting boards, and knives with soap and water. Place the raw meat and eggs separate from other food items in the refrigerator. Use a different vessel for cooking meat, fish, and chicken. Do not drink milk that is not boiled.


Can Food Poisoning Be Transmitted?

Food poisoning, which is caused by viruses, can be transmitted from person to person. It is also possible to spread the virus to other people when you prepare food or drinks with highly contaminated hands. Foodborne viruses that are contagious spread through indirect contact also. Throughout the day, there are possibilities that you might touch different objects and contaminate them.


What Are the Home Remedies for Food Poisoning?

The home remedies for food poisoning is ginger tea. After you are feeling well again, you may wish to replace your normal intestinal flora with natural yogurts. These food items which are easily available at home might help your body regenerate the healthy bacteria that is lost in the food poisoning purge and get your digestive system and immune system back to normal.


How Long Does Stomach Hurt After Food Poisoning?

Abdominal cramps in your stomach, diarrhea, and vomiting may happen immediately after 1 hour of eating contaminated food. It can last for 10 days or longer. The other possible symptoms are a variety of food poisonings such as bloating and gas.


Is Diarrhea a Symptom of Food Poisoning?

Food poisoning symptoms start within a few hours of eating contaminated food often include nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. Food poisoning is mild and it usually resolves without any treatment. Diarrhea is known to be accompanied by abdominal pain.


Can Food Poisoning Cause a Fever?

A fever is a basic symptom that can accompany along with various other illnesses. Fever can occur in food poisoning and other infections. It can be taken as a sign that something is not alright with the body. This is the time you should provide additional care to the body.


What Are the Food Which Can Cause Food Poisoning?

Unboiled milk, raw meat, and fish are known to cause a wide range of food poisoning. Raw fruits and vegetables might become poisonous. Rice, which was cooked long ago, can become contaminated. Eggs that are stored for a long time can be contaminated too.


What Is the Difference Between Stomach Flu and Food Poisoning?

Although both the symptoms might be similar, there are few ways to identify the difference between stomach flu and food poisoning. They are:
1. Bloody diarrhea is a symptom of food poisoning.
2. Projectile vomiting, along with abdominal cramps, are often caused by virus infections. This might be an indication of the flu.

Last reviewed at:
23 Oct 2019  -  4 min read




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