Search our network of doctors and schedule your appointment today
Most people will deal with food poisoning at some point in their lives. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an average of 48 million people are impacted by some form of foodborne illness, and roughly 3,000 people die from the condition, annually. So, while it's often treatable with at-home remedies, it can be more serious than initially thought. But where's the line? When can you treat your symptoms at home and when should you see your doctor?
Symptoms to Know
To properly manage food poisoning, it's important to be clear about what's causing your symptoms. Foodborne illnesses are very different from an allergy or sensitivity, which would be caused by the food itself. Instead, the problems associated with the condition are the result of contamination from a variety of sources. In most cases, food poisoning is caused by bacteria in the food, but it can also be attributed to viruses or even parasites.
The exact symptoms of your case can vary widely. For example, bacterial infections will typically trigger a reaction within two to six hours. Viruses or parasites, however, could take several days before starting any trouble. Regardless of the cause, foodborne illness can generally be identified by:
- Diarrhea, sometimes bloody
- Abdominal pain
Usually, these symptoms will pass after a few days or even hours.
If you develop any of the above symptoms, your primary concern should be dehydration. Unfortunately, due to the degree of fluid loss, water might not be enough. Try electrolyte drinks or oral rehydration powders to stay hydrated. These powders can be purchased from a pharmacy, but if you're feeling industrious — and aren't particularly worried about taste — you could blend your own at home by mixing 1/2 teaspoon of salt, 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda, 4 tablespoons of sugar, and 4 1/4 cups of water.
Depending on your symptoms, you may also need to take steps to control diarrhea and vomiting. Various over-the-counter medications, including loperamide and bismuth subsalicylate, could be useful here. It's important to note that you should avoid these medications if the diarrhea is bloody. This particular symptom is often a sign of bacterial or parasitic infections, both of which can be made worse with these products.
While eating is probably far from your mind at this point, avoid any foods that could cause further digestive problems, including foods that are overly fatty, and make sure to get plenty of rest. Regardless of the exact cause, your body is in the midst of a fairly challenging fight and needs to be able to focus its resources on dealing with the infection.
When to See Your Doctor
There's quite a bit that you can do for food poisoning at home, but there might come a time when you need to see your doctor. Contact your doctor if you experience worsening symptoms or any of the following:
- Blood or pus in your stools
- An inability to drink fluids due to nausea and vomiting
- A fever above 101°F in adults, or above 100.4°F in children, along with diarrhea
- Signs of dehydration
- Diarrhea after traveling to a foreign country
- Diarrhea that has not gotten better in five days (two days for an infant or child)
- A child who has been vomiting for more than 12 hours (for newborns under 3 months, a doctor should be called as soon as vomiting or diarrhea begins)
- Food poisoning from mushrooms, fish or other seafood, or botulism
Also, if you're taking diuretics, talk to your doctor about what to do. Because of the nature of these medications, your doctor may advise you to stop taking them when experiencing dehydration and diarrhea If you need medical assistance quickly, consider heading to a nearby urgent care.
Food poisoning is an unpleasant but manageable condition if you know what to look for and how to treat it. And if you experience severe, ongoing symptoms, talk to your doctor to seek advanced medical help.