Most commonly, food poisoning is a reaction to food or water contaminated during improper cooking, handling or storage. The most common contaminants are bacteria, such as salmonella, Campylobacter and E. coli. Other contaminants include viruses, parasites and toxins. Food poisoning usually leads to abdominal cramping, vomiting and diarrhea.
Food poisoning, although common, often can be prevented easily. An estimated 85% of food-poisoning incidents can be prevented by handling and preparing food properly. Usually, symptoms subside within a day or two. However, in some cases, food poisoning is quite dangerous.
Symptoms of food poisoning include:
The diagnosis is usually made on the basis of symptoms alone, and fortified if there is an accompanying history of a person eating with you who also became sick. If a doctor wants to pinpoint the microorganism that caused the food poisoning, you will be asked to provide a stool sample to be examined in a laboratory. Your doctor also may want to take a sample of your blood for testing. If you have some of the food that might have made you sick, ask your doctor if it is important to test for infectious organisms or a toxin. The sample can be cultured in a laboratory, which means it is placed on a special material that encourages organisms that may be in the sample to grow, so they can be identified.
Up to 80% of food poisoning is related to eating commercially prepared foods or institutional foods. In such cases, questioning others who have eaten the same foods may help to determine the cause.
Information about the length of time between eating the food and the beginning of symptoms can help in diagnosing the problem:
In general, food poisoning goes away in one to three days, although some types of food poisoning may last much longer.
To prevent food poisoning, select safe foods. Take the following steps:
Store foods properly.
Prepare foods safely:
Be aware that food served in restaurants or institutions may not have been stored at the proper temperature, and that food handlers may not have the best personal hygiene. When eating at a restaurant, order cautiously. Be wary of soft cheeses, raw seafood and anything that contains raw eggs.
Food irradiation is another effective means to prevent food poisoning. During irradiation, foods are exposed briefly to a radiant energy source, such as gamma rays or electron beams, within a shielded facility. Irradiation is not a substitute for properly manufacturing and handling food. The process, however, can kill harmful bacteria and greatly reduce potential hazards, especially when used to treat meat and dairy products. Irradiation is a controversial practice and is not well accepted in some areas of the world. Irradiated foods are not widely available in the United States.
Because large amounts of fluids are lost through vomiting and diarrhea, treatment of food poisoning focuses on preventing dehydration. If you have food poisoning, you must drink fluids, even if you have trouble keeping them down.
Once you can tolerate fluids without vomiting, you can begin to add bland foods to your diet. If vomiting or diarrhea persists for more than 24 hours, a doctor may prescribe medications to suppress nausea, and may provide fluids intravenously. For some infectious causes of food poisoning, antibiotics may be recommended. People with very severe food poisoning may need to be admitted to a hospital.
Call a doctor immediately if food poisoning is suspected in:
If you are otherwise healthy, you should call a doctor if:
For most people, food poisoning is an unpleasant experience that lasts for a day or two, then passes. In very young children, elderly people, people with compromised immune systems and pregnant women, it can be dangerous. Anyone in these risk groups should go to an emergency room immediately.
American College of Gastroenterology (ACG)
P.O. Box 342260
Bethesda, MD 20827-2260
American Gastroenterological Association
4930 Del Ray Ave.
Bethesda, MD 20814
Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition
U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
5100 Paint Branch Parkway
College Park, MD 20740-3835
Food Safety and Inspection Service
United States Department of Agriculture
5601 Sunnyside Ave.
Beltsville, MD 20705
U.S. Food and Drig Administration (FDA)
5600 Fishers Lane
Rockville, MD 20857