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What you need to know about food poisoning

Last Modified: July 19, 2023

Family Medicine


If you suddenly find yourself having symptoms of a stomach bug, it might be a good idea to think about what you’ve eaten recently, because your upset stomach could be caused by food poisoning. It can happen to anyone, but certain people are at higher risk of having a bad bout or complications.

What is food poisoning?

Food poisoning is an illness caused by consuming foods that have harmful germs in them. It can lead to upset stomach, vomiting or diarrhea. These germs are mostly found in raw meat, chicken, fish and eggs, but can spread to any type of food. Germs can grow on food that’s left out on counters, outdoors, or that was stored too long before you ate it. (Learn how to reduce your risk here.) Food poisoning can also be transmitted when people prepare food without washing their hands first.

How do germs get into our food?

Harmful germs such as bacteria, parasites and viruses can get into food through a variety of ways, including:

  • When meat is processed. Bacteria live in the intestines of healthy animals used for food. Sometimes the bacteria get mixed up with the parts of those animals that we eat.
  • When food is watered or washed. If the water that's used to irrigate or wash fresh fruits and vegetables has germs from animal manure or human sewage in it, those germs can get on the fruits and vegetables.
  • When food is prepared. When there are germs on the hands of someone who touches the food, or if the food touches other food that has germs on it, the germs can spread. Germs from raw meat can get onto vegetables if you use the same cutting board for both, for example. Home-canned foods that haven't been prepared properly may contain germs.

What are the symptoms of food poisoning?

After you eat contaminated food, you may notice symptoms after a few hours or days. The first sign is usually diarrhea, but you may also feel sick to your stomach, vomit or have stomach cramps. Diarrhea and vomiting are normal responses to the body trying to rid itself of harmful germs. If you experience a lot of vomiting or diarrhea, your body could lose too much fluid and become dehydrated. Most of the time, food poisoning is mild and passes on its own in a few days. Occasionally, it could lead to more serious symptoms, such as high fever or blood in your stool.

The symptoms you get will depend on what type of germ has infected you. Some types of food poisoning have more severe symptoms. These can include weakness, numbness, confusion or tingling of the face, hands and feet.

For the very young and the very old, symptoms may last longer. For these higher risk groups, even the types of food poisoning that are typically mild can be life-threatening. This may also be true for people who are pregnant or who have weak immune systems, such as those who have chronic illnesses.

How is food poisoning diagnosed?

Since food poisoning is typically mild, most people don’t go to the doctor to get diagnosed. You can usually assume that you have food poisoning if others who ate the same food also got sick.

If you go to the doctor, you'll be asked about your symptoms and health and get a physical exam. Your doctor will ask where you've been eating and whether anyone who ate the same foods is also sick. Sometimes the doctor will take stool or blood samples to be tested.

If you think you have food poisoning, call your local health department to report it. This could help keep others from getting sick.

How can you care for yourself when you have food poisoning?

To look after yourself while you have food poisoning, focus on managing your symptoms. The main goal should be getting rest and replenishing the fluids and electrolytes lost through vomiting and diarrhea.

Here are a few care tips to help you out:

  • Drink plenty of fluids to help prevent dehydration. Choose water and other clear liquids until you feel better. You can also take frequent sips of a rehydration drink (such as Pedialyte®), but soda, fruit juices, and sports drinks have too much sugar and not enough of the important electrolytes that are lost during diarrhea. These kinds of drinks should not be used to rehydrate. If you have kidney, heart, or liver disease and have to limit fluids, talk with your doctor before you increase the amount of fluids you drink.
  • Medicines that stop diarrhea (such as Imodium®) can help with your symptoms but shouldn’t be used for children or those with a high fever or bloody diarrhea.
  • When you feel like eating again, go slow and start with small amounts of food.
  • Continue to take your medicines as prescribed. Call your doctor if you think you are having a problem with your medicine. You will get more details on the specific medicines your doctor prescribes.

When should I call the doctor for food poisoning?

If any of your symptoms turn severe, you should see your doctor. These symptoms include:

  • Bloody diarrhea
  • Diarrhea that lasts more than three days
  • High fever (temperature over 102°F)
  • Vomiting so often that you cannot keep liquids down
  • Signs of dehydration, which include not urinating (peeing) much, a dry mouth and throat, feeling dizzy when standing up

For severe dehydration, you may need treatment in the hospital. See your doctor if you are pregnant and have a fever and other flu-like symptoms. Some mild infections can cause problems with pregnancy.

How to prevent food poisoning

No one wants to experience food poisoning. Here are a few tips for how to keep your own kitchen safe from harmful germs.

  • Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.
  • Do not eat meats, dressings, salads or other foods that have been kept at room temperature for more than 2 hours.
  • Make sure your refrigerator is cold enough. It should be between 34°F and 40°F.
  • Defrost meats in the refrigerator or microwave, not on the kitchen counter.
  • Keep your hands and your kitchen clean. Wash your hands, cutting boards, and countertops with hot, soapy water. If you use the same cutting board for chopping vegetables and preparing raw meat, be sure to wash the cutting board with hot, soapy water between each use.
  • Cook meat until it is well done.
  • Do not eat raw eggs or uncooked dough or sauces made with raw eggs.
  • Do not take chances. If you think food looks or tastes spoiled, throw it out.












Copyrighted material adapted with permission from Healthwise, Incorporated. This information does not replace the advice of a doctor.

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