What is food poisoning?
Food poisoning (also called foodborne illness) causes vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pains. Symptoms usually go away within a few days, but in severe cases, food poisoning can cause significant morbidity (many health consequences). Food poisoning occurs when a person consumes food or beverages contaminated by:
- Toxins, chemicals and molds.
There are more than 250 types of food poisoning. Some of the most common germs and parasites that cause food poisoning are:
- E. coli: Usually found in undercooked meat and raw vegetables, E. coli can cause serious health problems, especially in young children.
- Listeria: Bacteria in soft cheeses, deli meats, and raw sprouts can cause an infection called listeriosis, which is especially dangerous for pregnant women.
- Norovirus: People can get norovirus by eating undercooked shellfish or consuming food that a sick person prepared.
- Salmonella: Raw eggs and undercooked poultry are common sources of salmonella poisoning. Salmonella is responsible for the highest number of hospitalizations and deaths from food poisoning.
- Staphylococcus aureus (staph): A staph infection occurs when people transfer the staph bacteria from their hands to food.
- Clostridium perfringens: Raw meat or poultry, pre-cooked foods are common sources of clostridium. It can cause gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms (nausea, vomiting, abdominal pains, and diarrhea) within 6-24 hours. It generally lasts a day or two but can last weeks in some people.
- Campylobacter: This common bacterial infection producing severe GI upset can linger for weeks. Usually, culprits are found in poorly processed meats or contaminated vegetables, milk, or water sources. The condition is generally self-limited and is rarely fatal.
- Trichinella spiralis: This worm is found in raw or undercooked meats, particularly pork products.
Other common causes of food poisoning include cryptosporidium and streptococcus.
How common is food poisoning?
Food poisoning is very common. Most cases aren’t severe enough to require hospitalization. According to the CDC, about 48 million people experience some type of food poisoning each year in the United States. Around 3,000 people die from foodborne illness every year.
Who is affected by food poisoning?
Everyone is at risk of getting food poisoning, but certain groups of people are more likely to get sick after eating contaminated food. People who have a higher risk of foodborne illness are:
- Pregnant women.
- Older adults (over age 65).
- Young children (under age 5).
- People who have a weakened immune system due to cancer, HIV, or other illness.
Symptoms and Causes
What are the symptoms of food poisoning?
Food poisoning symptoms range from mild to severe and vary depending on the type of contamination. Symptoms may appear 1 to 6 hours after eating contaminated food, or they may take days or weeks to develop. A well-known symptom of food poisoning is diarrhea. Other common symptoms of foodborne illness include:
How do people get food poisoning?
People get foodborne illness by eating or drinking contaminated food, water, and other beverages. Food can become contaminated at any time during storage, preparation and cooking. Contamination occurs when food is not:
- Washed thoroughly.
- Handled in a sanitary way.
- Cooked to a safe internal temperature.
- Refrigerated or frozen promptly.
Diagnosis and Tests
How is food poisoning diagnosed?
Your doctor will evaluate your symptoms and ask for details about what you’ve had to eat and drink recently. Depending on your symptoms, your doctor may also take a stool sample or blood test to check for parasites or bacteria.
How do I know if I have food poisoning?
It can be hard to tell whether you have foodborne illness or another kind of infection. Symptoms of food poisoning are similar to symptoms of gastroenteritis (often called stomach flu, though gastroenteritis isn’t influenza).
If your symptoms appeared after eating a particular food, and if other people who ate the same food are also sick, you may have food poisoning.
Management and Treatment
What are the treatments for food poisoning?
Usually, the body can manage food poisoning on its own by expelling the toxins that are making you sick. If you become severely dehydrated from vomiting or diarrhea, you may need to receive IV liquids (through a vein) at the hospital. Doctors may prescribe antibiotics to treat food poisoning caused by certain bacteria.
What are the side effects of the treatment for food poisoning?
IV fluids to treat dehydration do not have side effects. The IV line generally contains a saline (salt) solution to replenish your body’s fluids. Side effects of antibiotics include upset stomach and diarrhea.
What are the complications associated with food poisoning?
Complications of food poisoning can be severe. They include:
- Dehydration: The most common complication of foodborne illness, dehydration can be fatal if not treated. Dehydration is especially common in young children.
- Miscarriage or stillbirth: Listeria infection is especially dangerous for unborn babies because the bacteria can cause neurological damage and death.
- Kidney damage: E. coli can lead to hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) and kidney failure.
- Arthritis: Salmonella and campylobacter bacteria can cause chronic arthritis and joint damage.
- Brain damage: Some bacteria or viruses can cause infection of the brain called meningitis.
- Death: In severe cases, food poisoning can be fatal, especially for people who are in high-risk groups.
What can you do to help relieve symptoms of food poisoning?
If you have symptoms of food poisoning, it is very important to drink fluids to reduce your risk of becoming dehydrated. Doctors usually do not recommend taking over-the-counter anti-diarrheal medication because your body needs to get rid of the toxins that are making you sick.
To relieve some of the symptoms of food poisoning, hydration is key. You can:
- Drink broth and electrolytes to replace fluids you have lost.
- Try Popsicles® or other frozen juice.
- Avoid eating until you feel better.
- Take small bites of bland food such as toast or crackers when you feel ready to start eating again.
- Get lots of rest.
How can you prevent food poisoning?
You can reduce your risk of foodborne illness by practicing food safety. Pregnant women and others with a higher risk of food poisoning should be especially careful when handling and consuming food. Food safety practices include:
- Staying clean: Wash your hands, utensils, cutting boards, and surfaces often. Rinse fruits and vegetables under water before eating.
- Avoiding cross-contamination: Use separate cutting boards and keep raw meat, seafood, and eggs away from other foods. Don’t rinse raw poultry under water because you can spread germs to other surfaces. If you are making a salad, make it and put it into the refrigerator before you touch any kind of raw meat, poultry, seafood or eggs.
- Cooking thoroughly: Make sure food is cooked to a safe internal temperature, which varies depending on the type of food you’re cooking. Always use a food thermometer to check the temperature.
- Chilling food: Keep your refrigerator below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and refrigerate or freeze prepared food within 2 hours. Thaw food in the refrigerator or microwave, never on the counter.
- Making good choices: Avoid unpasteurized cheese and milk, also called raw milk. Don’t eat food that looks or smells rotten, and toss out expired food.
- Listening to food recalls: Pay attention to announcements of food recalls, and follow the directions to throw the food away or return to the store.
- Making reports to your public health department: If you think you have a foodborne illness, report it to your city or county health department. Even if you are not sure which food caused the problem, reporting it may help the department narrow down a problem and prevent it from happening to someone else.
Outlook / Prognosis
What is the outlook for people who have food poisoning?
In most cases, people with food poisoning recover after a few days with no long-term health issues. Rarely, people can develop lasting health problems or may die if the illness is severe. The outlook for people with foodborne illness depends on:
- What bacteria or toxin caused the food poisoning.
- The type of contamination that occurred.
- Age and overall health of the person with the illness.
When should you call your healthcare provider about food poisoning?
You should call your healthcare provider if you:
- Have a high fever (over 102°F).
- See blood in your stool or in your vomit.
- Are very dehydrated and aren’t urinating.
- Have diarrhea for more than a few days or it becomes bloody.
- Can’t keep any food or liquids down for an extended time.
- Experience muscle weakness or blurred vision.
- Feel confused, lightheaded, or dizzy.
- Are pregnant. Certain types of food poisoning, such as listeria, can be very dangerous for pregnant women.
Should you breastfeed your child if you have food poisoning?
You should continue to feed your child if you have diarrhea or other gastrointestinal symptoms while breastfeeding. You should increase your own fluid intake while doing so. It is fine for you to use oral rehydration salts or liquids and continue to breastfeed.
However, if you are breastfeeding and you take over-the-counter medicines to stop diarrhea, you should make sure they do not contain bismuth subsalicylate, which can be transferred in breast milk. Certain antibiotics used to treat diarrhea, like fluoroquinolones and macrolides, can be transferred via breast milk. Make sure your healthcare provider knows you are breastfeeding when discussing medications.
When can you return to work or school if you have had food poisoning?
Do not return to work or school if you have a fever, or have vomited or had diarrhea in the past 48 hours.
Where can I learn more about food poisoning?
For additional information on food poisoning:
- Listen to our podcast, When Food Poisoning Strikes.
- Read Healthessentials article, Food Poisoning: How Long It Lasts + What to Do When You’ve Eaten Something Bad.
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