When You Need Urgent Care
By Deepa Ravi, MD, FAAP
Food poisoning is caused by bacteria and viruses that get into the food we eat or the liquids we drink. We can’t taste, smell or see these germs. When germs that cause food poisoning get into our systems, they can release toxins – poisons that can cause diarrhea and vomiting.
What are signs of food poisoning?
Food poisoning is an illness that comes on quickly after eating contaminated food. People often get diarrhea or start vomiting within a few hours of being infected. The good news is food poisoning usually goes away quickly too. In most cases, symptoms will clear up within 1 to 10 days. Other times, symptoms may not appear for several weeks.
Signs of food poisoning include:
- belly pain and cramps
- diarrhea (with or without blood)
- overall weakness
What foods can cause food poisoning?
People get food poisoning from animal-based foods like meat, poultry, eggs, dairy products and seafood. Unwashed fruits, vegetables and other raw foods also can be contaminated and make people sick. Even water can cause food poisoning.
Foods and liquids can be contaminated at different points during food preparation, storage and handling. For example:
- Water that is used to grow food can become infected with animal or human feces.
- Meat or poultry may encounter germs during processing or shipping.
- Bacteria can infect foods stored at the wrong temperature or kept too long.
- Food handlers can contaminate foods if they don’t wash their hands or use unclean utensils or cutting boards.
When do I need to see a doctor?
Most cases of food poisoning don’t need medical attention, but some do. The most common serious complication from food poisoning is dehydration. A person who is healthy is unlikely to get dehydrated if he or she drinks enough liquids to replace what’s lost through vomiting or diarrhea.
Seek urgent medical attention if you have any of these symptoms:
- vomiting that lasts for more than 12 hours
- diarrhea with a fever higher than 101°F (38.3°C)
- severe belly pain that doesn’t go away after a bowel movement
- bloody feces (diarrhea or regular poop) or bloody vomit
- bowel movements that are black or maroon
- a racing or pounding heart
It’s important to watch for signs of dehydration, which include:
- extreme thirst
- making little or no urine
- sunken eyes
- lightheadedness or weakness
Usually, food poisoning runs its course and people get better on their own in a few days. Severe dehydration may need to be treated with IV fluids and a medication called Zofran (Ondansetron).
How should I treat my symptoms at home?
To help feel better in the meantime, make sure you:
- Get plenty of rest.
- Drink liquids to protect against dehydration. Electrolyte solutions work, but anything except milk or caffeinated beverageswill do.
- Take small, frequent sips to make it easier to keep the fluids down.
- Avoid solid foods and dairy products until any diarrhea has stopped.
- Do not take over-the-counter anti-diarrhea medicines.These can make the symptoms of food poisoning last longer. When diarrhea and vomiting have stopped, try small, bland, low-fat meals for a few days to prevent further stomach upset.
How can I help prevent food poisoning?
- Wash hands well and often, especially after using the bathroom, before touching food, and after touching raw food. Use soap and warm water and scrub for at least 15 seconds.
- Clean all utensils, cutting boards, and surfaces that you use to prepare food with hot, soapy water.
- Don’t serve unpasteurized milk or food that contains unpasteurized milk.
- Wash all raw vegetables and fruits that you can’t peel yourself.
- Keep raw foods (especially meat, poultry, and seafood) away from other foods until they’re cooked.
- Use perishable food or any food with an expiration date as soon as possible.
- Cook all food from animal sources to a safe internal temperature:
- Refrigerate leftovers quickly, preferably in containers with lids that snap tightly shut.
- Defrost foods in the refrigerator, a microwave, or cold water. Food should never be thawed at room temperature.
- If food is past its expiration date, tastes funny or smells strange, throw it out.
- Don’t drink water from streams or untreated wells.
If you or someone in your family gets food poisoning, tell your local health department. Officials may be able to find the cause and stop an outbreak that could affect others.