Health Library

Definition

Food poisoning is a disease that is carried or transmitted to humans by contaminated foods or beverages.

Gastrointestinal System
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Causes

Food poisoning is caused by substances in foods or beverages, including:

  • Bacteria
  • Poisons produced by bacteria
  • Viruses
  • Amoeba or parasites
  • Chemicals

Risk Factors

Infants and the elderly are at increased risk for food poisoning. Other factors that increase your chances of getting food poisoning include:

  • Poor hygiene
  • Poor refrigeration
  • Lack of knowledge of safe food preparation
  • Weakened immune system, including during pregnancy

Symptoms

After you consume the contaminated food or beverage, there is a delay before symptoms arise. This delay is called an incubation period. It can last hours or weeks. Symptoms include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach pain
  • Dehydration—if vomiting or diarrhea is severe
  • Neurologic symptoms, including headache, lightheadedness, visual disturbances, and seizures
  • Poor urine output
  • Cramps
  • Bloody stools, bloody vomit
  • Fever, chills
  • Muscle aches and pains
  • Weakness

Diagnosis

You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. If you have some of the food that you think made you sick, you may be asked to bring it in to be tested.

Your bodily fluids may be tested. This can be done with:

  • Blood tests
  • Urine tests
  • Stool tests
  • Vomit tests

Treatment

Most types of food poisoning improve in 12-48 hours. There aren't many treatments available to speed your recovery from food poisoning.

Treatments include:

Fluids

Drink plenty of fluids. If you are severely ill, you may need IV fluids.

Antibiotics

Some types of bacterial food poisoning can be treated with antibiotics.

Self-care

This includes the following:

  • Take acetaminophen for fever, aches, and pains.
  • Start by drinking only clear liquids or sucking on ice chips. Then, try eating soft, bland foods if you can do so without vomiting.
  • If consuming milk products worsens symptoms, avoid them for several days.
  • Check with your doctor before you use antidiarrheal medications.

Antitoxin

If you have botulism poisoning, there is an antitoxin you can take.

If you are diagnosed with food poisoning, follow your doctor's instructions.

If you are diagnosed with food poisoning, follow your doctor's instructions.

Prevention

To help prevent food poisoning:

  • Only eat and drink milk products that are pasteurized.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly before touching food.
  • Cook foods thoroughly.
  • Always rinse fresh fruits and vegetables before eating them. Peel away any skin or rind.
  • Be particularly careful when preparing chicken.
  • Never put cooked meat on a surface that previously had raw meat on it.
  • Use separate cutting boards for meat and other foods.
  • Don't prepare any recipes that use raw egg. You can use powdered egg products in place of a fresh egg.
  • Don't eat prepared food that has been outside a refrigerator for more than two hours, or one hour in very hot weather.
  • Set your refrigerator temperature to below 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius).
  • If you have a weakened immune system or are pregnant, don't eat raw shellfish, rare meat, or unpasteurized dairy products.
  • If you are traveling:
    • Drink bottled water, not tap water.
    • Don't order drinks with ice.
    • Eat cooked fruits and vegetables instead of raw ones.
    • Don't eat food from street vendors.

Revision Information

  • Reviewer: Peter Lucas, MD
  • Review Date: 12/2013 -
  • Update Date: 12/16/2013 -
  • American Gastroenterological Association

    http://www.gastro.org

  • Gateway to Government Information About Food Safety

    http://www.foodsafety.gov

  • Canadian Association of Gastroenterology

    http://www.cag-acg.org

  • Canadian Partnership for Consumer Food Safety Education

    http://www.canfightbac.org

  • Food poisoning. American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at: http://familydoctor.org/online/famdocen/home/healthy/firstaid/basics/923.html. Updated February 2011. Accessed December 16, 2013.

  • Food poisoning. FoodSafety.gov website. Available at: http://www.foodsafety.gov/poisoning/index.html. Accessed December 16, 2013.

  • Food poisoning. Nemours' KidsHealth.org website. Available at: http://kidshealth.org/kid/ill%5Finjure/sick/food%5Fpoisoning.html. Updated March 2012. Accessed December 16, 2013.