Food poisoning is a vicious and painful illness, but luckily it is temporary, should pass quickly, and, in most cases, can be treated at home. Here’s everything you need to know about food poisoning, including the symptoms, how long the illness lasts, when to seek medical attention, and options for treatment.
Causes, signs, and symptoms of food poisoning
Food poisoning is caused by eating food contaminated by viruses, bacteria, toxic chemicals, or parasites. In most cases, the food is contaminated by bacteria, like salmonella or Escherichia coli (E. coli), or a virus like the norovirus. Food contaminations often happen when food is not prepared properly or stored at the correct temperature.
Food poisoning symptoms usually come on suddenly, typically within hours of eating contaminated food, and they last until all traces of the infection have been purged from the body.
Symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, stomach pain and cramping, fever, headache, and feeling weak and lethargic.
You may be tempted to try over-the-counter medications and treatments to stop the vomiting and diarrhea, such as loperamide (Imodium), but this may only prolong your illness. The infection needs to be completely expelled from the body for you to recover. Instead of trying to stop this process, it’s best to let it take its course and replace fluids as much as possible.
How long do food poisoning symptoms last?
Food poisoning symptoms typically set in within hours of eating contaminated food. How long the symptoms last can depend on a variety of factors, such as age, pre-existing illnesses, and the bacteria or virus causing the symptoms.
In healthy people, most symptoms pass between 12 and 48 hours. The body must purge all of the foodborne infection before symptoms go away completely. But some cases of food poisoning, such as those caused by the bacteria campylobacter, can cause symptoms lasting over 10 days.
When to seek medical care
One of the greatest dangers of food poisoning is the risk of dehydration. You may not be able to retain any fluids if you are vomiting and have diarrhea. If your symptoms are so severe that you cannot keep down any liquids, you may need to seek medical attention. A doctor can administer intravenous fluids to keep you at a safe hydration level and help the illness pass more quickly.
Some forms of food contamination may require antibiotics to fully recover. If your food poisoning symptoms last longer than 48 hours, you should seek medical attention to see if a prescription is necessary.
You should also seek medical care if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, have a compromised immune system, have a fever over 102 degrees Fahrenheit, have blood in your diarrhea or vomit, have blurred vision, feel dizzy or lightheaded, or experience confusion or delirium.
Food poisoning treatment options Liquids, especially those containing electrolytes, are a crucial treatment for food poisoning. Sipping water, Gatorade, broth, juice, or ginger ale can help maintain your hydration levels and help the sickness pass more quickly.
Taking bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto Bismol) may help alleviate symptoms. Remember that it will likely turn your stool black due to the chemicals it contains. Medical providers can offer antibiotics to treat certain forms of foodborne illness. They can also administer an IV to maintain fluids and electrolytes. They may offer medication to relieve nausea or other symptoms.