When you have food poisoning, the first thing you want is relief. Your symptoms depend on what caused you to get sick, but you usually have diarrhea, throwing up, and an upset stomach at the least. It’s no fun, but it’s how your body tries to kick out the toxins and get you better.
You usually get it from eating food or drinking water that is contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites, or toxins created from these. While some cases last longer, it’s usually gone within a few days.
There’s not a whole lot you can do except stay near a bathroom and ride it out. But you can take some steps to support yourself as you recover.
Common Causes of Food Poisoning
Your treatment partly depends on what gave you food poisoning and how sick you are. Some of the causes, from most to least common in the United States, are:
Norovirus: You can get this virus from raw fruits and vegetables. You can also get this from shellfish, such as lobster and clams, that come from tainted water. Food handlers who have norovirus can also spread it as they prepare meals for customers.
Salmonella. You can become infected with this bacteria by eating contaminated food such as beef, poultry eggs, vegetables or fruits, drinking contaminated water, or touching infecting animals and not washing your hands afterwards.
Clostridium perfringens. Usually a problem on foods left unrefrigerated for too long, this is common in meats, stews, and gravies.
Campylobacter. You get can this from raw or undercooked meat, especially chicken, as well as unpasteurized milk and tainted water.
Shigella. Often spread when someone uses tainted water to clean food, it can be found on seafood and raw, ready-to-eat fruits and vegetables.
E. coli. You often get this one from eating undercooked beef, especially ground beef, as well as drinking unpasteurized milk and cider. E. coli bacteria can also be contracted through contact with the feces of an infected person and by touching animals and failing to wash your hands afterwards.
Giardia intestinalis. This is a parasite found in stream water or food contaminated by stool.
Listeria. Less common than others on this list, you can get it from packaged foods such as hot dogs and lunch meats, soft cheeses such as brie, and raw fruits and vegetables. Pregnant women need to be extra careful about listeria since it can cause miscarriage.
How Is Food Poisoning Treated?
In most cases, there isn’t much your doctor can specifically do for you, and you get better on your own within a few days.
Adults or children who lose a lot of fluids — this is called dehydration — may need to go the hospital to get an IV. This will replace your fluids and electrolytes more quickly.
For severe food poisoning caused by certain bacteria, such as listeria, you may get antibiotics.
But with most bacteria, you may not get any medication unless you have a weak immune system or you’re pregnant.
You may also get medicine for food poisoning caused by parasites. For viruses, there’s nothing you can take.
What Can I Do at Home?
Diarrhea and vomiting can really throw off your body’s balance of fluids and electrolytes.
Electrolytes are minerals, such as sodium and potassium, that help with everything from keeping your heartbeat normal to controlling how much water is in your body.
So your main job is to drink plenty of fluids. Start with ice chips or small sips if you need to. It’s also helpful to:
- Avoid food for the first few hours as your stomach settles down
- Drink water, broth, or an electrolyte solution, which will replace the minerals that you lose with vomiting and diarrhea
- Eat when you feel ready, but start with small amounts of bland, nonfatty foods such as toast, rice, and crackers
- Get plenty of rest
- Stay away from dairy, caffeine, alcohol, bubbly or fizzy drinks, or spicy and fatty foods — they can just make everything worse
Let Nature Run Its Course
Tempting as it may be, you typically want to avoid over-the-counter medicine to stop your diarrhea.
That’s because the diarrhea is helping to get rid of whatever is making you sick.
If you think you need it, check with your doctor first. And don’t give it to children — the side effects for them could be serious.
When Should I Call My Doctor?
Though food poisoning usually goes away on its own, call your doctor if you have any signs of dehydration:
- Dry mouth or extreme thirst
- Not peeing much (or at all) or dark, concentrated urine
- Rapid heartbeat or low blood pressure
- Weakness, dizziness, or a lightheaded feeling, especially when going from lying down or sitting to standing
Also call your doctor if you see any of these symptoms:
- Blood in your vomit or poop
- Blurry vision
- Diarrhea for more than 3 days
- Extreme pain or cramps in your belly
- Fever over 101.5 F
- Throwing up that won’t stop — you can’t even keep liquids down
- Tingling in your arms
- Weakness in your muscles
Food poisoning is more dangerous for some people than others. It’s best to call a doctor for:
- Adults 60 and older
- Babies and children
- People with a chronic illness or weak immune system
- Pregnant women
- Mayo Clinic: “Food Poisoning,” “Food-borne Illness: First Aid.”
- NIH: “Why is the neurobiology of nausea and vomiting so important?”
- NHS: “Food Poisoning.”
- Poison Control: “Food Poisoning.”
- KidsHealth: “Food Poisoning,” “Gastrointestinal Infections and Diarrhea,” “Basic Blood Tests.”
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Food Poisoning.”