Food Poisoning Remedies and When to See a Doctor
- Helpful food poisoning remedies include staying hydrated, taking an over-the-counter medication like Pepto-Bismol, and eating bland foods that are easy to digest like toast and bananas.
- Most food poisoning cases are mild and resolve on their own within 48 hours, but it’s important to manage symptoms and be aware if they worsen after a couple of days.
- Some signs that you should consider seeing a doctor is if you’re experiencing severe dehydration, a high fever, or blurry vision.
You eat a meal or snack, and shortly after your stomach starts cramping and lurching, among other uncomfortable or painful symptoms. You might be experiencing food poisoning — which roughly one in six Americans deal with every year.
How soon you start feeling sick depends on the type of contaminant in the food, and can range from 30 minutes to 4 weeks after eating, says Erika Madrigal, MD, a gastroenterologist with St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton, California.
Most food poisoning cases are mild and resolve on their own, but it’s important to know how to control symptoms, and when to seek medical attention. “Most patients have mild cases and need rest and hydration,” Madrigal says. “The main treatment is managing the symptoms.”
Here’s how to tell if you have food poisoning and some common natural and medicinal remedies to help relieve symptoms as the infection passes.
Main symptoms of food poisoning
Although there are many different ways to contract food poisoning, the symptoms of the condition are largely the same. “Despite the numerous organisms that can cause food poisoning and the different time frames between exposure and onset of symptoms, most of the patients present with a combination of similar symptoms,” says Madrigal.
The most common symptoms of food poisoning are:
- Upset stomach and stomach cramps
- Diarrhea that may or may not contain blood
- Fever and chills
If you experience weakness, you should seek medical attention, since that can indicate the condition is more serious and requires medical treatment, Madrigal says. In most cases, however, symptoms resolve on their own within a few days. If your symptoms last longer than that, you may be dealing with the stomach flu, or viral gastroenteritis, not food poisoning.
“Most patients will have a mild presentation that will resolve within 48 hours with treatment of the symptoms,” Madrigal says. “Other patients’ symptoms will persist and progress, requiring medical attention and, at times, hospitalization.”
Typically, the treatment for food poisoning involves staying hydrated and managing your symptoms. Here are some home and medicinal remedies to try:
- Hydrate: “The most important recommendation is to stay hydrated, even if it is by small and frequent sips of water,” Madrigal says. She recommends drinking until you’re no longer thirsty, rather than worrying about counting glasses of water.
- Oral rehydration powder: In addition to water, you can take oral rehydration powder, which replaces water and minerals that you’ve lost through diarrhea and vomiting, Madrigal says. You can purchase the powder at drugstores or make your own by combining the following: ½ teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon baking soda and 4 tablespoons sugar in 4¼ cups of water.
- Eat bland, low-fat foods: When you’re able to eat, start with bland, low-fat foods, which are more gentle on your stomach. Madrigal recommends eating toast, bananas, and rice while avoiding caffeine, alcohol, fatty and seasoned foods.
- Over-the-counter medications: Over-the-counter medications like Imodium or Pepto-Bismol can help control diarrhea, although doctors debate this treatment. In some situations, medication can slow down or stop diarrhea but prolong the course of the illness. They should only be used if necessary and should never be used by kids, or by adults who have a fever, are vomiting, or have blood in the stool, Madrigal says.
- Fluid replacement therapy/IV: If you are suffering from dehydration or unable to keep down any food or water, you may need IV hydration, which is most often given in a medical facility. This is more common for kids.
- Antibiotics: In most cases, doctors will not prescribe antibiotics for food poisoning. However, if they can identify that the food poisoning was caused by a bacteria, or if subsequent infection occurs, they may prescribe antibiotics.
Causes of food poisoning
There are many different ways to contract food poisoning, but ultimately they all involve food contamination. This could happen while the food is being processed, while it’s being shipped and sold, or while it’s being prepared. Eating food that has been outside the fridge too long, is prepared with utensils that haven’t been cleaned, or by a person who hasn’t washed their hands can all lead to food poisoning.
Here are three examples of common germs that can cause food poisoning:
- Staphylococcus aureus (Staph) is commonly transmitted via foods that aren’t cooked after human handling, such as cream-filled pastries, sliced meats, and sandwiches. Symptoms occur between 30 minutes and six hours after eating.
- Salmonella is commonly contracted from poultry, raw fruits and vegetables, and unpasteurized milk and juices. Symptoms occur six hours to six days after eating.
- Listeria is commonly contracted through soft cheeses, deli and processed meats, and smoked seafood. Symptoms occur one to four weeks after eating.
When to see a doctor
Although most cases of food poisoning are mild, about 180,000 Americans are hospitalized for food poisoning each year, and 3,000 people die from the condition. Young children, pregnant women, the elderly, and people with chronic health conditions that affect the immune system, like HIV or cancer, are at higher risk for complications from food poisoning and should seek treatment immediately, Madrigal says.
People who do not fall into those categories should seek medical attention if they experience any of the following:
- Signs of dehydration. This includes headaches, lightheadedness, or dry mouth.
- Weakness. This can indicate dehydration or progression of the infection.
- Blurry vision. This can indicate that you’re experiencing neurological symptoms, which could mean that the infection is spreading.
- Diarrhea lasting longer than 72 hours. This and constant vomiting indicate that you’re not keeping anything down and are at high risk of dehydration.
- Fever above 101 °F in adults or 100.4 °F in children.
It’s also important to contact a doctor if you experience food poisoning soon after traveling to another country since this could mean you were exposed to different toxins.
Food poisoning is very unpleasant, but also very common. Taking steps such as frequently washing your hands, cooking food thoroughly, and discarding food that hasn’t been refrigerated properly can all help reduce your risk. If you believe that a contaminant was present when you bought your food, you should report it to your local health department.
If you do experience food poisoning, remember that it will likely pass quickly. While you have symptoms, focus on staying hydrated. If you experience weakness or other alarming symptoms, call your local healthcare professional and discuss whether you should come in for an appointment.