Skip to Content
Home > Wellness > Health Library > Food Poisoning and Safe Food Handling
This topic is about many different types of
food poisoning. You can also see the topics
E. Coli Infection and
Toxoplasmosis During Pregnancy.
Food poisoning is an
illness caused by eating foods that have harmful organisms in them. These
harmful germs can include bacteria,
viruses. They are mostly found in raw meat, chicken,
fish, and eggs, but they can spread to any type of food. They can also grow on
food that is left out on counters or outdoors or is stored too long before you
eat it. Sometimes food poisoning happens when people don't wash their hands
before they touch food.
Most of the time, food poisoning is mild
and goes away after a few days. All you can do is wait for your body to get rid
of the germ that is causing the illness. But some types of food poisoning may
be more serious, and you may need to see a doctor.
The first symptom of
food poisoning is usually diarrhea. You may also feel sick to your stomach,
vomit, or have stomach cramps. Some food poisoning can cause a high fever and blood in your stool. How you feel when you have food poisoning mostly
depends on how healthy you are and what germ is making you sick.
If you vomit or have diarrhea a lot, you can get
dehydrated. Dehydration means that your body has lost
too much fluid.
Germs can get into food when:
Because most food poisoning is mild and goes
away after a few days, most people don't go to the doctor. You can usually
assume that you have food poisoning if other people who ate the same food also
If you think you have food poisoning, call your local
health department to report it. This could help keep others from getting sick.
Call your doctor if you think you may have a serious illness. You may need to see your doctor if
your diarrhea or vomiting is very bad or if you don't start to get better
after a few days.
If you do go to
the doctor, he or she will ask you about your symptoms (diarrhea, feeling sick
to your stomach, or throwing up), ask about your health in general, and do a
physical exam. Your doctor will ask about where you have been eating and
whether anyone who ate the same foods is also sick. Sometimes the doctor will
take stool or blood samples and have them tested.
In most cases, food poisoning goes away on
its own in 2 to 3 days. All you need to do is rest and get plenty of fluids to
dehydration from diarrhea. Drink a cup of water or rehydration drink
(such as Pedialyte) each time you have a large, loose
stool. Soda and fruit juices
have too much sugar and shouldn't be used to rehydrate. Doctors recommend
trying to eat normally as soon as possible. When you can eat without vomiting,
try to eat the kind of foods you usually do. But try to stay away from foods
that are high in fat or sugar.
Antibiotics usually aren't used to
treat food poisoning. Medicines that stop diarrhea (antidiarrheals) can be
helpful, but they should not be given to infants or young children. You shouldn't take antidiarrheals if you have a high fever or have blood in the diarrhea, because they can make your illness worse.
If you think you are severely dehydrated, you may need to go to the
You can prevent most cases of food poisoning
with these simple steps:
Learning about food poisoning and safe food handling:
Taking care of yourself:
is an illness caused by eating or drinking contaminated food. You
can get food poisoning by eating food contaminated by harmful organisms, such
as bacteria, parasites, and viruses.
The most common ways that
harmful organisms are spread are:
The symptoms of
food poisoning usually affect your stomach and
intestines (gastrointestinal tract).
The time it takes for symptoms to appear, how severe the
symptoms are, and how long the symptoms last depend on the infecting organism,
your age, and your overall health.
The very young and the very
old may be most affected by food poisoning. Their symptoms may last longer, and
even the types of food poisoning that are typically mild can be
life-threatening. This may also be true for pregnant women and people with
impaired immune systems, such as those who have
long-lasting (chronic) illnesses.
Not all food poisoning causes diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and belly cramps. Some types of food
poisoning have different or more severe symptoms. These can include weakness,
numbness, confusion, or tingling of the face, hands, and feet.
Gastrointestinal symptoms, such as diarrhea and vomiting,
can also be caused by organisms that aren't necessarily spread through food.
These organisms are mainly spread through water or personal contact.
Conditions caused by these organisms include infection
with the parasite Giardia lamblia.
Learn more about specific food poisoning organisms, including how they are spread, their symptoms, and their treatment:
You may become ill with
food poisoning after you eat food that contains
bacteria, viruses, or other harmful organisms. Most cases of food poisoning
follow the same general course.
After you eat a contaminated
food, there is an hours-to-days delay before you notice symptoms. The
contaminating organism passes through the stomach into the intestine, attaches
intestinal walls, and begins to multiply. Some
organisms stay in the intestine. Some produce a toxin that is absorbed into the
bloodstream. And others directly invade body tissues. Your symptoms depend
greatly on the type of organism that has infected you.
organisms cause similar symptoms, especially diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach
cramps. Diarrhea and vomiting are a normal response as the body tries to rid
itself of harmful organisms. Unless the illness is part of a recognized
outbreak, it's difficult to identify the infecting organism. Lab
tests usually aren't done.
In most cases, you recover in a few
days to a week as toxins are flushed from your system. You may feel weak for
several days after other symptoms go away.
Most of the time, food
poisoning is mild and passes in a few days. But the symptoms and course of some
types of food poisoning may be more severe. To learn more, see Symptoms for a list of specific organisms.
In rare cases, food poisoning can result in kidney or joint
People at increased risk of
becoming ill with
food poisoning and of having more severe symptoms
Things that increase your risk for getting food
Call 911 or other emergency services right away if:
Call your doctor immediately if:
Talk to your doctor if:
If you think you have eaten contaminated food, your local
Poison Control Center can answer questions and provide information on what to
do next. Poison Control Centers are usually listed with other emergency numbers
in your telephone book.
Children, pregnant women, and people with
long-lasting (chronic) conditions, such as
diabetes, are more likely to have severe dehydration
and should be watched closely for symptoms.
Watchful waiting is a period of time during
which you and your doctor observe your symptoms or condition
without using medical treatment.
Watchful waiting may be appropriate if you
have diarrhea, stomach cramps, and other symptoms of stomach flu (gastroenteritis). Most people recover from these
gastrointestinal illnesses at home in several days without medical treatment.
Likewise, some cases of bacterial food poisoning are mild and pass in several
days. But if diarrhea is severe or lasts longer than a week, call your
doctor for advice.
Health professionals who are able to diagnose and treat food
You may be referred to a
gastroenterologist if your symptoms are persistent or
To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.
food poisoning is mild and passes in a few days, so most
people don't go to a doctor for a diagnosis. You can often
diagnose food poisoning yourself if others who ate the same food as you also
If you do go to your doctor, he or she
will make the diagnosis based on your symptoms, a physical exam, and your
medical history. Your doctor will ask
where you have been eating and whether anyone who ate the same food has the
Sometimes the following tests are done:
Your doctor may need to report your condition
to the health department. This is done to help the government track the
condition and identify possible outbreaks.
In most cases, the diarrhea and
other symptoms of
food poisoning go away in 2 to 3 days, and you don't
need treatment. It may be longer than 2 to 3 days until you feel normal
All you have to do is manage symptoms, especially diarrhea,
and avoid complications until the illness passes. In most cases,
dehydration caused by diarrhea is the main
Extra precautions should be
taken to prevent
dehydration in children.
To learn more about treating dehydration, including in children, see Home Treatment.
The goal of treatment is to replace fluids and
electrolytes lost through vomiting and diarrhea. If
dehydration is severe and can't be managed at home, you may need treatment in
the hospital, where fluids and electrolytes may be given to you by inserting a
needle into your vein (intravenously).
Medicines that stop diarrhea (such as Imodium) can
help with your symptoms. But these medicines shouldn't be used in children or
in people with a high fever or bloody diarrhea.
Antibiotics are rarely used and only for certain types
of food poisoning or in severe cases.
Pregnant women with
toxoplasmosis may receive antibiotics.
information on treating diarrhea or dehydration, see:
For more information on treatment for specific organisms, see Symptoms.
botulism and some cases of E. coli poisoning, immediate and intensive
medical care is usually needed.
For more information, see:
women should always consult their doctors if they think they may
have food poisoning, because the infection can be passed on to the
Toxoplasmosis and listeriosis can also harm your baby. If you are diagnosed with either of these
conditions during pregnancy, you will be treated with antibiotics. To learn more, see Toxoplasmosis During Pregnancy.
You can prevent most cases of
food poisoning by being careful when you prepare and
store food. Wash your hands and working surfaces while preparing food, cook
foods to safe temperatures, and refrigerate foods promptly. Be especially
careful when you cook or heat perishable foods, such as eggs, meats, poultry,
fish, shellfish, milk, and milk products. Also take extra care if
you are pregnant, have an
impaired immune system, or are preparing foods for
children or older people.
The following steps can help prevent
food poisoning (adapted from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and
Many counties in the United States have extension services
listed in the phone book. These services can answer your questions about safe
home canning and food preparation.
To learn more, see Symptoms for a list of specific organisms.
Most cases of
food poisoning will go away in a few days with rest
and care at home. The following information will help you recover.
the most frequent complication of food poisoning. Older persons and children
should take special precautions to prevent it.
To prevent dehydration, take
frequent sips of a
rehydration drink (such as Pedialyte). Try to drink a cup of water or rehydration drink for each large,
loose stool you have. Sports drinks, soda pop, and fruit juices contain too
much sugar and not enough of the important
electrolytes that are lost during diarrhea, so they shouldn't be used to rehydrate. You can
make your own rehydration drink.
Try to stay with your normal
diet as much as possible. Eating your usual diet will help you to get enough
nutrition. Doctors believe that eating a normal diet will also help you feel
better faster. But try to avoid foods that are high in fat and sugar. Also
avoid spicy foods, alcohol, and coffee for 2 days after all symptoms have
extra precautions to prevent
dehydration in children.
For children who are breast-feeding or bottle-feeding,
continue the regular breast milk or formula feeding as much as possible. You
may have to feed more often to replace lost fluids. Give an
oral rehydration solution (ORS), such as Pedialyte, between feedings only if
you see signs of dehydration.
For older children, give ½ cup
[4 fl oz (118 mL)] to 1 cup
[8 fl oz (237 mL)] of water,
milk, or a rehydration drink each hour, and try to keep feeding your child his
or her usual diet. Foods to try include potatoes, chicken breast without the
skin, cereal, yogurt, and fresh fruits and vegetables. Try to avoid foods that
have a lot of fat or sugar. Supplement feedings with small sips or spoonfuls of
a rehydration drink or clear liquid every few minutes.
Medicines aren't used routinely in
food poisoning. Medicines that stop diarrhea
(antidiarrheals) can help with your symptoms. These medicines (such as Imodium) shouldn't be used if you have a fever or bloody diarrhea, because they can
actually make you sicker. Don't give antidiarrheals to children.
Types of food poisoning that may be treated with medicines
For information on medicines and treating
E. coli, see the topic
E. Coli Infection.
This website has general information on outbreak
investigations, an overview of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
(CDC) food safety programs and activities, and other educational resources. One
of these resources is the Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network, known
as FoodNet, which is sponsored by CDC and its Emerging Infections Program
(EIP), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the U.S. Food and Drug
Administration (FDA). FoodNet monitors food-borne diseases and helps public
health officials better understand food-borne diseases in the United States.
The Partnership for Food Safety Education (PFSE) is a
group that works with industry associations, consumer groups, the U.S.
government, and professional societies in food science, nutrition, and health
to educate the public about safe food handling. The organization offers a
"Fight Bac" campaign that teaches the four steps—clean, separate, cook, and
chill—that can reduce the risk of food-borne illness. The PFSE website
contains food safety brochures, press releases, and other materials for
educators and consumers. The site also provides tips on working within your
community to promote food safety and has a special section for children.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services. The FDA provides accurate, science-based information about medicines and foods and helps protect public health by assuring the safety, effectiveness, and security of:
The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service sees that
the supply of meat, poultry, and egg products in the United States is safe,
wholesome, and correctly labeled and packaged. Its website has extensive
information on food safety, food preparation, food poisoning, and food
labeling. It provides phone numbers and email addresses to use to ask for
information on food poisoning, food safety, and food safety education programs.
The website also allows the public to ask questions through an interactive
feature called "Ask Karen."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2010). Campylobacter. Available online: http://www.cdc.gov/nczved/divisions/dfbmd/diseases/campylobacter.
McGauly PL, Mahler SA (2011). Foodborne and waterborne diseases. In JE Tintinalli, ed., Tintinalli's Emergency Medicine: A Comprehensive Study Guide, 7th ed., pp. 1062–1070. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Other Works Consulted
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2006). Staphylococcal Food Poisoning. Available online: http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dbmd/diseaseinfo/staphylococcus_food_g.htm.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2009). Salmonellosis. Available online: http://www.cdc.gov/nczved/divisions/dfbmd/diseases/salmonellosis.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2009). Shigellosis. Available online: http://www.cdc.gov/nczved/divisions/dfbmd/diseases/shigellosis.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2010). Campylobacter. Available online: http://www.cdc.gov/nczved/divisions/dfbmd/diseases/campylobacter.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2010). Marine toxins. Available online: http://www.cdc.gov/nczved/divisions/dfbmd/diseases/marine_toxins.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2010). Parasites—Cryptosporidium (also known as "Crypto"). Available online: http://www.cdc.gov/parasites/crypto/gen_info/infect.html.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2011). Clostridium Perfringens. Available online: http://www.cdc.gov/foodborneburden/clostridium-perfringens.html.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2011). Escherichia coli O157:H7 and other shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC). Available online: http://www.cdc.gov/nczved/divisions/dfbmd/diseases/ecoli_o157h7/index.html.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2011). Listeria (Listeriosis). Available online: http://www.cdc.gov/listeria/index.html.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2011). Noroviruses and drinking water from private wells. Available online: http://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/drinking/private/wells/disease/norovirus.html.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2011). Parasites—Toxoplasmosis (Toxoplasma Infection). Available online: http://www.cdc.gov/parasites/toxoplasmosis/gen_info/faqs.html.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2011). Questions and answers about foodborne illness (sometimes called "food poisoning"). Available online: http://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/facts.html#what.
Food Safety and Inspection Service (2011). Foodborne illness: What consumers need to know. Available online: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/fact_sheets/Foodborne_Illness_What_Consumers_Need_to_Know/index.asp.
Sodha SV, et al. (2010). Foodborne disease. In GL Mandell et al., eds., Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett’s Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases, 7th ed., vol. 1, pp. 1413–1427. Philadelphia: Churchill Livingstone Elsevier.
U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (2011). Fact sheet. Safe food handling: Basics for handling food safely. Available online: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/fact_sheets/Basics_for_Handling_Food_Safely/index.asp.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration (2012). Bad Bug Book: Foodborne Pathogenic Microorganisms and Natural Toxins Handbook, 2nd ed. Available online: http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodSafety/FoodborneIllness/FoodborneIllnessFoodbornePathogensNaturalToxins/BadBugBook/default.htm.
October 18, 2012
E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine & W. David Colby IV, MSc, MD, FRCPC - Infectious Disease
How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.
To learn more visit Healthwise.org
© 1995-2013 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.
Our interactive Decision Points guide you through making key health decisions by combining medical information with your personal information.
You'll find Decision Points to help you answer questions about:
Get started learning more about your health!
Our Interactive Tools can help you make smart decisions for a healthier life. You'll find personal calculators and tools for health and fitness, lifestyle checkups, and pregnancy.
Feeling under the weather?
Use our interactive symptom checker to evaluate your symptoms and determine appropriate action or treatment.
Genesis HealthCare System | 1-800-322-4762