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Food Poisoning: Duration, Treatment, and More

What does it mean to have food poisoning?

Key points

  1. One in six Americans gets sick with food poisoning each year.
  2. The duration depends on what made you sick and what your symptoms are.
  3. Most people can treat food poisoning at home without seeking medical care.

If you have food poisoning, you might be wondering when you’re going to feel better. But there’s not just one answer because there are so many different kinds of food poisoning.

According to the U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), 1 in 6 Americans get sick with food poisoning each year. Infants, children, older adults, and people with chronic illnesses or compromised immune systems are at the greatest risk.

Keep reading to learn more about how long food poisoning lasts, what the symptoms are, and when to seek medical attention.

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Duration of illness

How long does food poisoning last?

There are more than 250 types of food poisoning. Although the symptoms may be similar, the length of time it takes to get better differs, depending on:

  • what substance caused the contamination
  • how much of it you ingested
  • the severity of your symptoms

In most cases, people recover within a day or two without needing medical care.

Causes

What causes food poisoning?

Food poisoning can happen when you eat or drink something contaminated by any of the following:

  • bacteria
  • viruses
  • parasites
  • chemicals
  • metals

Most of the time, food poisoning is an illness of your stomach and intestines. But it can affect other organs, too.

These are the most common causes of food poisoning in the United States along with the foods associated with them:

Cause of illness Associated foods
salmonella raw and undercooked meat and poultry, eggs, unpasteurized dairy products, raw fruit, and raw vegetables
E. coli raw and undercooked beef, unpasteurized milk or juice, raw vegetables, and contaminated water
listeria raw produce, unpasteurized dairy products, processed meat, and poultry
norovirus raw produce and shellfish
campylobacter unpasteurized dairy products, raw and undercooked meat and poultry, and contaminated water
Clostridium perfringens beef, poultry, gravy, precooked food, and dried food
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Symptoms

What are the symptoms?

The time between when you ingest contaminated food and first experience symptoms can be anywhere from under one hour to three weeks. This depends on the cause of the contamination.

For instance, symptoms of a bacterial infection linked to undercooked pork (yersiniosis), can appear between four to seven days after eating the contaminated food.

But on average, food poisoning symptoms begin within two to six hours after consuming contaminated food.

Symptoms of food poisoning vary by the type of contaminate. Most people experience a combination of the following:

  • watery diarrhea
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • abdominal pain
  • headache
  • fever

Symptoms that occur less frequently include:

  • dehydration
  • diarrhea containing blood or mucus
  • muscle aches
  • itching
  • skin rash
  • blurry vision
  • double vision

Check out: Is it a stomach bug or food poisoning? Tips for identification »

Treatment

What to do if you have food poisoning

If you are vomiting or have diarrhea, the most pressing concern is dehydration. But you may want to avoid food and fluids for a few hours. As soon as you are able, begin taking small sips of water or sucking on ice chips.

Besides water, you may also want to drink a rehydration solution. These solutions help replace electrolytes, which are the minerals in your body fluid that conduct electricity. They’re necessary for your body to function.

Rehydration solutions are especially helpful for:

  • children
  • older adults
  • people who have a compromised immune system
  • people who have a chronic illness

When you can eat solid food, begin with small amounts of bland foods that include:

  • crackers
  • rice
  • toast
  • cereal
  • bananas

You should avoid:

  • carbonated beverages
  • caffeine
  • dairy products
  • fatty food
  • overly sweet food
  • alcohol

And be sure to take it easy and get plenty of rest until your symptoms subside.

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Your doctor

When you should see a doctor

You should contact your doctor when you first experience symptoms if you:

  • are older than 60 years of age
  • are an infant or toddler
  • are pregnant
  • have a weakened immune system
  • have a chronic health condition like diabetes or kidney disease

If you’re taking diuretics and develop food poisoning, call your doctor and ask if it’s safe to stop using them.

In general, you should see a doctor if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • diarrhea lasting longer than two days, or 24 hours in an infant or child
  • signs of dehydration, including extreme thirst, dry mouth, reduced urination, lightheadedness, or weakness
  • bloody, black, or pus-filled stool
  • bloody vomit
  • a fever of 101.5 ͦF (38.6°C) or higher in adults, 100.4 ͦF (38°C) for children
  • blurred vision
  • tingling in your arms
  • muscle weakness
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Prevention

How to prevent food poisoning

You can prevent food poisoning in your home by following the basics of food safety:

Clean

  • Wash your hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds before and after handling food.
  • Wash your hands after handling raw meats, using the toilet, or being around people who are ill.
  • Wash cutting boards, dinnerware, silverware, and counters with warm, soapy water.
  • Wash fruit and vegetables, even if you’re going to peel them.

Separate

  • Uncooked meat, poultry, and fish should never share a plate with other foods.
  • Use separate cutting boards and knives for meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs.
  • After marinating meat or poultry, don’t use the remaining marinade without first boiling it.

Cook

  • Bacteria multiply quickly between the temperatures of 40  ͦF (4 ͦC) and 140 ͦF (60 ͦC). That’s why you want to keep food above or below that temperature range.
  • Use a meat thermometer when cooking. Meat, fish, and poultry should be cooked to at least the minimum temperature recommended by the FDA.

Chill

  • Refrigerate or freeze perishable food within two hours.
  • Frozen food should be thawed in the refrigerator, microwave, or under cold water.

Keep reading: What to do if you get food poisoning while you’re pregnant »

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