Food Poisoning Facts and Treatment

Young woman cracking egg over skillet on stove in kitchen

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The holidays are not the only time of year when we might accidentally cut corners in food safety. Food might be left out on the counter. Potato salad might be prepared a day ahead of time. With so many people crowded into the family kitchen, the carrots might be cut on the meat cutting board. Maybe someone tried a new recipe and the food wasn't cooked fully or pulled out old home canned foods. Someone else might bring surprise raw oysters.

Food poisoning happens. There are bacteria, parasites, and viruses that can spread from cooks to guests, canned foods to family.

Every year probably 1 in 6 in the US will have a foodborne illness, 128,000 will be hospitalized, and 3,000 will die, according to the CDC.

Most food poisoning illnesses cause nausea and vomiting, followed by diarrhea. They can be caused by preformed "poisons" or toxins (like in Staph Aureus Bacillus cereus, Botulism) that cause vomiting within hours of eating. They can also cause infections that take time - days - to develop.

First things, first:

Keep Hydrated.

Keep drinking. You can drink watered down juice (50:50 water and juice). If becoming dehydrated, use Oral Replacement Serum or Therapy (See ORS or ORT) This means drinking water that has salt and sugar in it. You can use formula for babies, use pedialyte or other flavored brands for children for dehydration. For adults, you can use buy packets of ORS to add to water or you can add 6 teaspoons of sugar, 0.5 teaspoons of salt to 1 Liter of water

You should see a doctor if you

  • Cannot keep down liquids because of vomiting
  • Vomit blood
  • Bloody stools or black tarry stools
  • Will not/cannot drink enough to keep hydrated
  • Child cries without tears, has fewer wet diapers, dry mouth, or has any other symptom of dehydration
  • Cannot stand up or become lightheaded, weak from dehydration
  • Cannot urinate or urinate very little because of dehydration
  • Have a high Fever, > 101.5 F or 38.6 C
  • Have severe abdominal pain, cramping, abdominal rigidness
  • Become weak or tingly, especially in the legs or have blurry vision or problems breathing. This can be concerning for a disease called GBS (Guillain–Barré syndrome) and should prompt immediate medical attention 

You may need to go directly to the hospital or call 911 if someone is very sick. If someone is not responding, is vomiting red blood, is dizzy and has black tarry stools, is too dehydrated to sit up and cannot drink, or has any other worrisome symptoms, call for immediate medical attention.

Some people are more at risk than others:

Infants and small children are more at danger from dehydration. They're smaller and maintaining hydration is a bit more delicate. It's also a bit harder to ask an infant to drink more to stay hydrated. Be quick to seek medical attention for any infants or small children if needed.

Pregnant women may be at more risk for infection, which may then be more severe. Certain infections, like listeria, can particularly affect them and their fetus. The illness can be mild for mom with just fever, muscle aches, nausea, and vomiting, but should still be evaluated and treated as appropriate by a doctor. Because illnesses cannot be diagnosed by anyone on their own it's good to have regular follow up and conversations with your health care provider during pregnancy. (Toxoplasmosis also is a foodborne illness that can cause harm to a fetus, but it does not result in the same food poisoning symptoms)

Anyone with a weakened immune system (HIV, Cancer, Liver Disease, on Steroids, Diabetes) is at higher risk. Certain infections, like cryptosporidia or Vibrio vulnificus are very different illnesses in those who are immunocompromised. These diseases are much worse - and food-related illnesses can be life-threatening for those with very weak immune systems.

Older Folks can come sicker; immune systems weaken with age. Dehydration can be harder to manage if someone has heart failure and is on "water pill" or medications to reduce water weight, feet swelling, or edema. Those who live in senior housing or nursing homes may be vulnerable to outbreaks of norovirus which spread in the winter. Falls from dehydration can be particularly more serious in the elderly. Vomiting can be very dangerous if it is hard for you to sit up; some can wash back into your lungs making it hard to breathe.

Specific medical conditions can place people at specific risk for some foodborne illnesses. Low stomach acid or iron overload makes people at risk for Vibrio vulnificus.

There are a lot of infections that cause foodborne illnesses. You may never know what exactly caused your illness - neither the food nor the bug. The US government tracks bacteria CampylobacterE. O157, ListeriaSalmonellaShigellaVibrio, and Yersinia, and the parasites Cryptosporidium and Cyclospora, but there are even more bugs that get into our food. Many cases of food poisoning are never reported.

For diagnosis and treatment, please see your doctor or health care specialist.

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