How Do You Know It's Food Poisoning?

Reviewed on 12/22/2020

What is food poisoning?

Many cases of food poisoning never get an official diagnosis from the doctor. If you need to visit your doctor for food poisoning, they will diagnose you based on your symptoms.
Many cases of food poisoning never get an official diagnosis from the doctor. If you need to visit your doctor for food poisoning, they will diagnose you based on your symptoms.

Food poisoning is a common illness that happens if you eat contaminated food. There are about 48 million cases of foodborne illness annually in the United States. Food poisoning typically resolves within a couple of days. However, there are about 128,000 annual hospitalizations due to food poisoning in the U.S..

Food poisoning is an infection or irritation of your digestive tract. Viruses, bacteria, and parasites are the common reasons for food poisoning. Most often, it is acute, lasting a short time. In some cases food poisoning can last longer and lead to serious complications. It is responsible for 3,000 deaths each year in the U.S.

Food poisoning is common, and can usually be resolved on its own within a week. Most cases are acute and don’t require medical attention. But if it doesn’t resolve within a week or two, you’ll want to call your doctor.

Signs and symptoms of food poisoning

Food poisoning symptoms can range from mild to severe depending on what type of food poisoning you got. It may take a few hours or even a day or two before you start experiencing symptoms. This can make it challenging to identify what caused food poisoning.

Common symptoms include:

If your symptoms do not resolve within a week they can become more severe. You should monitor your symptoms. Long-term effects include kidney failure, chronic arthritis, brain and nerve damage, and, in extreme cases, even death.

Causes of food poisoning

Food poisoning occurs because you’ve consumed a harmful microbe that infected your food. Common causes of food poisoning are:

Bacteria and viruses

This is the most common cause for food poisoning. How you treat your food poisoning, if it becomes severe, will be determined by which microbe you have ingested.

Parasites

The most common foodborne parasites are roundworms and tapeworms. They can infect food that hasn’t been properly handled.

Mold, toxins, and contaminants

In some rare cases, you may have eaten food that has been contaminated with mold, toxins, or harsh chemicals. If you suspect you’ve consumed toxins or chemicals, you should call the poison control center. 

Allergens

Some cases of allergic reactions could present themselves as food poisoning. An allergic reaction is an abnormal response from your body’s immune system, triggered by specific foods.

You can get food poisoning from restaurants, eating at home, or buffets. Any food can become contaminated, but there are foods that can be common sources of food poisoning.

Common sources are:

  • Raw shellfish and fish
  • Raw or undercooked meat or poultry
  • Processed or “ready to eat” deli meats or hotdogs
  • Unwashed fruits and vegetables
  • Unpasteurized dairy products

QUESTION

According to the USDA, there is no difference between a “portion” and a “serving.” See Answer

When to see the doctor for food poisoning

If you’re food poisoning is severe and accompanied by the following symptoms you should consult your doctor:

Diagnosing food poisoning

Many cases of food poisoning never get an official diagnosis from the doctor. If you need to visit your doctor for food poisoning, they will diagnose you based on your symptoms. They may perform additional tests to rule out other health problems or complications. Your doctor may need to report your food poisoning to the health department.

Treatments for food poisoning

Most cases of food poisoning are mild and can be treated at home. Your symptoms should go away within a week or two. Two important methods of treating food poisoning are:

Replacing electrolytes and lost fluids

You need to replace lost fluids to prevent dehydration or treat mild dehydration. Drink plenty of liquids, and if you have consistent vomiting try sipping small amounts of clear liquids. You can replace fluids and electrolytes with water, fruit juices with water, sports drinks, broths. Pedialyte, or other oral rehydration solutions that contain electrolytes are a good option.

Over-the-counter medicines

Some over-the-counter medicines like loperamide (Imodium) and bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol, Kaopectate) can treat diarrhea. Make sure you consult your doctor before giving medicine to your infant or child.

If you have bloody diarrhea or fever, do not use over-the-counter medicines for diarrhea. These are signs of infection. You should see your doctor for proper treatment.

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References
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Food poisoning symptoms."

FamilyDoctor.org: "What is food poisoning?"

Foodsafety.gov: "Food poisoning."

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Definitions and facts of food poisoning."

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