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If your gut is giving you grief, here’s how to identify the guilty subject—and how to avoid another bout in the future.

Kimberly Holland
September 04, 2018

The lurching, churning sensation deep in your stomach that tells you things are not well—we’ve all felt it once or twice (or many more times) in our lives. Soon comes the more physical reactions to the illness, and your diagnosis is confirmed:You’ve eaten something bad.

Food poisoning is far from rare. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate 48 million Americans experience food poisoning each year. Of those, just more than 125,000 are hospitalized because of the illness, and sadly, around 3,000 die from food poisoning or foodborne illnesses every year.

Here, the symptoms, causes, and complications of food poisoning, as well as advice on recovering and even preventing food poisoning in the future.

Symptoms of Food Poisoning

Food poisoning symptoms depend on the part of your body that is affected by the bacteria, parasites, or viruses you consumed with your food or beverage. The most common symptoms are nausea and vomiting. However, these symptoms are also possible:

  • diarrhea
  • abdominal pain and cramping
  • fever
  • dizziness
  • numbness
  • tingling in the arms

Symptoms of food poisoning can show up in a few hours, or they make take several days or weeks. That’s because the type of contamination largely decides how quickly you will get sick and what the symptoms will be.

The most common causes of food poisoning—E. coli, Salmonella,and Listeria—begin within a few hours. Symptoms are primarily vomiting and nausea, and the poisoning should resolve itself in two or three days.

Foods That Cause Food Poisoning

In theory, every food could be contaminated. That’s because foods can be contaminated at any point in growing, manufacturing, processing, or transportation. They could also be contaminated once you get them home.

However, certain foods are more likely to be the gut-wrenching culprits because of how they’re grown or made or how they’re processed. These foods include:

  • sushi or raw fish products
  • eggs
  • poultry
  • deli meat
  • hot dogs
  • meat, including beef, lamb, pork, fish, and shellfish
  • cheese
  • milk and dairy foods
  • fruits
  • vegetables

Complications of Food Poisoning

For most individuals, food poisoning is no fun, but it passes in a few days with no lingering symptoms.

That may not be the case for everyone, however. The most common complication of food poisoning is dehydration. With the vomiting and diarrhea, it’s not impossible that you could lose too much fluid, as well as vital minerals and salts. When this happens, you may experience:

  • excessive thirst
  • dry mouth
  • severe weakness
  • dizziness
  • little or no urination, or very dark urine
  • tingling in the arms
  • blurry vision
  • Lightheadedness

Other complications can occur in at-risk populations. For example, pregnant women may put themselves at risk of a miscarriage, stillbirth, or premature birth if their food poisoning is caused by listeria, a type of bacteria that’s commonly found in unpasteurized dairy products.

Groups at Increased Risk

Healthy individuals will have few problems as a result of food poisoning. That’s because the average and otherwise healthy person’s gastrointestinal (GI) system and body can bear the brunt of food poisoning and come out the other side a little haggard but otherwise OK.

However, that is not the case for all individuals. These groups of people may be at increased risk for complications of food poisoning. They may need special treatment in order to overcome the illness and recover.

  • Older adults and seniors: People of advanced age do not have immune systems with great fortitude. They may not respond as quickly to the bacteria, virus, or parasite as younger individuals. Their symptoms may be greater, and they may be more likely to experience severe complications.
  • People with chronic diseases: If you have a chronic illness, you’re no stranger to the increased risk of infections or illness that your long-term condition causes. With a weakened immune system, illnesses like food poisoning may be more severe.
  • Pregnant women: Women who get food poisoning during pregnancy should check with their doctors immediately. Some forms of food poisoning put pregnant women at risk of a miscarriage, stillbirth, or premature birth. Rarely, the illness can be passed to the fetus.
  • Infants and young children: They’re little, and their immune systems are young. That means they’ve not had the time to develop a robust way to fight off illness or recover quickly. Infants and toddlers may get more sick than older children and adults.

What Causes Food Poisoning?

In short: viruses, bacteria, chemicals, and parasites.

The list of these bugs and bad guys that could cause food poisoning is lengthy. Here are the top five culprits:

  • Escherichia coli (E.coli): This bacterium is commonly found in beef and animal proteins. Feces from the animal is passed through the production process to your plate. Undercooked meat is a common source.
  • Salmonella: Raw and undercooked meat, including poultry and pork, milk, and egg yolks are common sources of this bacterium. (This is why your mom warned you not to eat cookie dough.) It can be spread easily through a kitchen, passing from surface to surface and utensil to utensil.
  • Listeria: This bacterium is the culprit behind the many (many) ice cream recall headlines last year. It’s found commonly in dairy products, as well as lunch meats, hot dogs, and on raw fruits and vegetables. It can be spread through contaminated soil, water, and processing equipment.
  • Clostridium botulinum: Home-canned foods and improperly canned foods are a common source of this bacterium. It has the capability of producing botulinum, a neurotoxin. This dangerous bug can also grow in foods that are kept warm for too long, such as foods on buffets or at barbecues, or foods that are cooked slowly, such as smoked or salted foods.
  • Rotavirus: This contagious virus is easily passed on ready-to-eat produce, such as salads, fruit, and other ready-made foods. It can be spread by infected food handlers, too.

How Is Food Poisoning Treated?

For the most part, food poisoning does not need to be treated. Most individuals will make a full recovery with a bit of rest and rehydration.

In the first days after getting sick, these recovery treatments may help:

  • Eat bland foods. Rice, bananas, saltine crackers, chicken stock, and other easy-on-the-stomach foods should be your primary diet for the first few days after food poisoning.
  • Get hydrated. Your body will lose a great deal of fluids while you’re sick, so drink plenty of water and electrolyte-rich drinks like sports drinks.
  • Take something for nausea. It’s not a great idea to take medicines to stop diarrhea, such as loperamide (Imodium). Your body needs to clear the bacteria or virus that’s making you sick, and the medicine may slow that process. Instead, look for things that can help settle nausea, like ginger candies or no-caffeine sodas (lemon-lime soda or ginger ale).

How Do I Prevent Food Poisoning?

While not always possible, good habits can help cut down on your risk for future episodes of food poisoning. These steps are:

  • Clean: Wash your hands, utensils, surfaces, and anything that comes into contact with food often and well. Use warm, soapy water to wash, and hot water to rinse.
  • Separate: Keep raw foods like meat and uncut fruits and vegetables away from ready-to-eat foods. This cuts down on the risk of sharing bacteria and viruses.
  • Cook: Raw meats are a common source of illness-making bacteria, but cooking them to recommended temperatures will help kill those bacteria. For beef, cook foods to 160°F; for lamb, pork, and veal, cook foods to 145°F; for poultry like chicken and turkey, cook to 165°F.
  • Chill: Foods should be refrigerated promptly, or within two hours of being at room temperature. If you’re outside and the temps are over 90°F, you have only one hour before all the foods need to be cooled.
  • Toss: When in doubt, toss any suspicious foods. It’s better to be safe than sorry—or rather, sick.

When to See a Doctor

If symptoms of food poisoning do not subside after 72 hours, you may need to see a doctor for antibiotics or anti-parasite medications. Before you can get a medicine, however, your doctor may conduct a few tests to determine what’s causing the symptoms. This could include blood tests and fecal tests.

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