Foodborne illness typically isn’t fatal. While it may cause discomfort, the majority of individuals fully recuperate within several days, often without the need for medical intervention.

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What is food poisoning?

Food poisoning is a common yet potentially serious illness caused by consuming contaminated food or beverages. It occurs when you ingest food that is contaminated with harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites, or toxins, leading to various gastrointestinal symptoms. These symptoms can range from mild discomfort to severe illness, depending on the type of contaminant and the individual’s health status.

Food poisoning typically manifests within a few hours to several days after consuming contaminated food. The symptoms often include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever, and sometimes even headache or muscle aches. In severe cases, food poisoning can lead to dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, and other complications, especially in vulnerable populations such as young children, elderly individuals, pregnant women, and those with weakened immune systems.

It’s essential to recognize the signs of food poisoning and seek medical attention if symptoms persist or worsen. Most cases of food poisoning resolve on their own within a few days with rest, hydration, and symptomatic treatment. However, severe cases may require medical intervention, including antibiotics or intravenous fluids, to manage complications and prevent further health risks.

Preventing food poisoning involves practicing proper food safety measures, such as thorough cooking of meats and seafood, washing fruits and vegetables before consumption, avoiding cross-contamination between raw and cooked foods, and storing perishable items at the appropriate temperatures. By understanding the causes and symptoms of food poisoning and taking preventive measures, you can reduce the risk of falling ill from contaminated food and beverages.

Food poisoning symptoms

If you’re suffering from food poisoning, it’s likely to manifest with noticeable symptoms. The specific symptoms can vary depending on the origin of the infection. Common cases of food poisoning typically exhibit some combination of the following:

  • Abdominal cramps
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Mild fever
  • Weakness
  • Headache

Symptoms indicating potentially life-threatening food poisoning include:

  • Diarrhea persisting for over 3 days
  • Fever exceeding 102°F (38.9°C)
  • Impaired vision or speech
  • Signs of severe dehydration, such as dry mouth, minimal urine output, and difficulty retaining fluids
  • Presence of blood in urine

If any of these symptoms occur, it’s crucial to contact a healthcare professional or seek immediate medical attention.

Duration of Food Poisoning:

The onset of symptoms varies depending on the source of the infection, ranging from as soon as 30 minutes to as long as 8 weeks. Regardless of whether treatment is administered, most cases of food poisoning typically resolve within 1 week.

Causes of food poisoning

The majority of food poisoning cases can be attributed to three primary sources: bacteria, parasites, or viruses. These pathogens are present on nearly all the food we consume, although cooking typically eradicates them before ingestion. Raw foods are often implicated in food poisoning cases due to their lack of exposure to cooking temperatures.

In some instances, food may come into contact with these organisms through exposure to fecal matter or vomit. This situation is more likely to occur when an individual who is unwell handles food without proper hand hygiene.

Commonly contaminated food items include meat, eggs, dairy products, and occasionally water, which may harbor illness-causing organisms.


Bacteria are the leading cause of foodborne illnesses. Bacterial agents responsible for food poisoning include:

  • E. coli, notably Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC)
  • Listeria monocytogenes
  • Salmonella
  • Campylobacter
  • Clostridium botulinum
  • Staphylococcus aureus
  • Shigella
  • Vibrio vulnificus

Notably, bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella pose significant risks.

Salmonella is particularly prevalent, accounting for a substantial portion of food poisoning cases in the United States. According to the CDC, an estimated 1,350,000 instances of food poisoning, with 26,500 hospitalizations, are attributed to Salmonella infections annually.

Lesser-known yet equally hazardous bacteria like Campylobacter and C. botulinum can also pose serious threats to food safety.


Although less frequent than bacterial-induced food poisoning, parasites transmitted through food remain a significant threat due to their severe health consequences. Common foodborne parasites include:

  • Toxoplasma gondii
  • Giardia lamblia
  • Various tapeworms:
  • Taenia saginata (beef tapeworm)
  • Taenia solium (pork tapeworm)
  • Diphyllobothrium latum (fish tapeworm)
  • Cryptosporidium
  • Ascaris lumbricoides (roundworm)
  • Flukes (flatworms) like Opisthorchiidae (liver fluke) and Paragonimus (lung fluke)
  • Pinworms (Enterobiasis)
  • Trichinella

Toxoplasmosis, caused by Toxoplasma gondii, stands out as a leading cause of fatal food poisoning cases in the United States. Notably, Toxoplasma gondii can also be found in cat litter boxes.

Parasites can reside within the digestive tract without detection for extended periods, posing serious risks, particularly to individuals with compromised immune systems or pregnant individuals.


Foodborne illnesses can also result from viral infections, including:

  • Norovirus, sometimes referred to as Norwalk virus
  • Rotavirus
  • Astrovirus
  • Sapovirus
  • Hepatitis A virus

Norovirus alone accounts for 19 to 21 million cases of vomiting and diarrhea annually in the United States. Although rare, it can lead to fatalities. Other viruses, such as rotavirus and astrovirus, induce similar symptoms but are less prevalent.

Hepatitis A virus, responsible for liver infection, can also be transmitted through contaminated food.

Common sources

Cause of Food PoisoningSymptoms Onset After ExposureCommon Sources
Ascaris lumbricoidesRarely causes noticeable symptomsProduce grown in contaminated soil
Astrovirus4–5 daysContaminated water
Campylobacter2–5 daysRaw or undercooked chicken, unpasteurized milk, contaminated water
Clostridium botulinum18–36 hoursPreserved vegetables low in acid (e.g., green beans, mushrooms), canned tuna, fermented fish, ham, sausage, pruno (“prison wine”), improperly canned or bottled items at home
Cryptosporidium2–10 days (7 days on average)Fresh fruits, fruit juice, fresh vegetables, unpasteurized apple cider, unpasteurized milk, contaminated water
Diphyllobothrium latumRarely causes noticeable symptomsRaw or undercooked fish
E. coli3–4 daysRaw or undercooked beef, raw lettuce and other vegetables, raw sprouts, unpasteurized milk, contaminated water
Enterobiasis (pinworms)Rarely causes noticeable symptomsMostly transmitted by touching a contaminated surface or through close contact with an infected person; can also result from improper food handling
Giardia lamblia1–2 weeksProduce grown in contaminated soil, contaminated meat, contaminated water; can also result from improper food handling
Hepatitis A virus15–50 daysFrozen berries, frozen vegetables, undercooked shellfish, contaminated water; can also result from improper food handling
Listeria monocytogenes1–4 weeksUnpasteurized dairy (e.g., milk, soft cheeses), melon, raw sprouts, deli meat, smoked fish
Norovirus1–2 daysOysters and other shellfish, lettuce and other leafy greens, fresh fruit, contaminated water; can also result from improper food handling
Opisthorchiidae (liver fluke)Rarely causes noticeable symptomsRaw or undercooked crab, crawfish, or fish
Paragonimus (lung fluke)2–15 daysRaw, undercooked, pickled, or salted crab or crawfish
Rotavirus1–2 daysShellfish, salads, contaminated ice
Salmonella6 hours–6 daysRaw or undercooked poultry, eggs, raw fruits and vegetables, contaminated water
Sapovirus1–3 daysOysters, clams, contaminated water
ShigellaUsually 1–2 days (up to 7 days)Raw vegetables, cold salads like tuna salad and potato salad, sandwiches, contaminated water; can also result from improper food handling
Staphylococcus aureus30 minutes–8 hoursPuddings, cream-filled baked goods, sliced meats, cold salads like tuna salad and potato salad, sandwiches; can also result from improper food handling or leaving foods at improper temperatures
Taenia saginata (beef tapeworm)Rarely causes noticeable symptomsRaw or undercooked beef
Taenia solium (pork tapeworm)Rarely causes noticeable symptomsRaw or undercooked pork
Toxoplasma gondiiRarely causes noticeable symptomsUndercooked shellfish or meat (specifically pork, lamb, and venison), contaminated water; mostly transmitted through contact with infected cat feces, but can also result from improper food handling or preparation
Trichinella1–2 days for abdominal symptoms, 2–8 weeks for other symptomsRaw or undercooked meat, specifically pork and wild game
Vibrio vulnificus2–48 hoursRaw or undercooked shellfish, especially oysters

Food poisoning treatments

Treatment of Food Poisoning at Home:

  1. Stay hydrated: Maintaining proper hydration is essential when dealing with food poisoning. Drink plenty of fluids, such as water, to replace lost fluids and electrolytes. Sports drinks containing electrolytes can be beneficial. Fruit juice and coconut water can also help replenish carbohydrates and alleviate fatigue. It’s important to avoid caffeine, as it can irritate the digestive tract. Instead, opt for decaffeinated teas infused with soothing herbs like chamomile, peppermint, and dandelion, which may help soothe an upset stomach.

Using Over-the-Counter (OTC) Medications:

Over-the-counter (OTC) medications like loperamide (Imodium) and Pepto-Bismol can be effective in managing symptoms of food poisoning such as diarrhea and nausea.

However, it’s crucial to consult with a doctor before using these medications. Vomiting and diarrhea are the body’s natural mechanisms to eliminate toxins, and suppressing these symptoms may impede the body’s ability to expel harmful substances. Additionally, using OTC medications without medical advice may obscure the severity of the illness, potentially leading to delayed professional treatment.

Pyrantel pamoate (Reese’s Pinworm Medicine) is commonly used to treat pinworm infections. If dealing with pinworms, it’s essential to follow proper dosing instructions and consult with a healthcare professional if there are any concerns or questions.

Prescription Medications for Food Poisoning:

While many cases of food poisoning resolve without medical intervention, certain individuals, such as older adults, those with weakened immune systems, or pregnant individuals, may benefit from prescription medications, depending on the specific pathogen responsible for the illness.

Here are some prescription medication regimens your doctor may recommend for various causes of food poisoning:

  1. Ascaris lumbricoides: Antiparasitic medications like albendazole (Albenza) or mebendazole (Enverm).
  2. Campylobacter: Antibiotic treatment with azithromycin (Zithromax).
  3. Cryptosporidium: Antiparasitic medication nitazoxanide (Alinia), commonly used to treat diarrhea caused by Cryptosporidium.
  4. Diphyllobothrium latum (fish tapeworm): Antiparasitic medication praziquantel (Biltricide).
  5. Enterobiasis (pinworms): Albendazole (Albenza) or mebendazole (Enverm) may be prescribed.
  6. Giardia lamblia: Treatment options include nitazoxanide (Alinia), metronidazole (Flagyl), paromomycin, quinacrine, or furazolidone antibiotics, or tinidazole (Tindamax), which is both an antibiotic and antiparasitic medication.
  7. Listeria monocytogenes: Antibiotic treatment with ampicillin.
  8. Opisthorchiidae (liver fluke): Praziquantel (Biltricide) or albendazole (Albenza).
  9. Paragonimus (lung fluke): Praziquantel (Biltricide) or triclabendazole (Egaten), an antiparasitic medication.
  10. Shigella: Antibiotics such as azithromycin (Zithromax) or ciprofloxacin (Cipro).
  11. Taenia saginata (beef tapeworm): Praziquantel (Biltricide) or albendazole (Albenza), although these are off-label treatments for T. saginata.
  12. Taenia solium (pork tapeworm): Praziquantel (Biltricide) or albendazole (Albenza), off-label treatments for T. solium.
  13. Toxoplasma gondii: Combination therapy with pyrimethamine (Daraprim) and an antibiotic like sulfadiazine, or spiramycin as a standalone medication.
  14. Trichinella: Albendazole (Albenza) or mebendazole (Enverm) antiparasitic medications.

It’s important to follow your doctor’s instructions carefully and complete the full course of medication as prescribed. If you have any concerns or experience adverse effects, consult your healthcare provider promptly.

Receive an antitoxin

An infection with C. botulinum is considered a medical emergency. Seek medical care as soon as you can.

If you have a case of C. botulinum, a doctor will administer an antitoxin. Babies will receive a special antitoxin called BabyBIG (botulism immune globulin).


It’s also important for those with food poisoning to get plenty of rest.

If your case is severe

For severe instances of food poisoning, hospitalization may be necessary for hydration via intravenous (IV) fluids.

In the most extreme cases of food poisoning, an extended hospital stay might be essential for recovery. Individuals with severe cases of C. botulinum, although rare, may necessitate mechanical ventilation.

What to eat and drink when you have food poisoning

When experiencing food poisoning, it’s essential to focus on consuming gentle, easily digestible foods and staying hydrated to help alleviate symptoms and support recovery. Here are some recommendations for what to eat and drink when you have food poisoning:

  1. Clear Fluids: Drink plenty of clear fluids such as water, electrolyte solutions (oral rehydration solutions), clear broths, herbal teas, and diluted fruit juices. These fluids help replace lost fluids and electrolytes due to vomiting and diarrhea and prevent dehydration.
  2. Electrolyte-Rich Beverages: Electrolyte solutions like Pedialyte or sports drinks can help replenish electrolytes lost through vomiting and diarrhea. These beverages provide a balance of electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, and chloride, which are essential for maintaining proper hydration and electrolyte balance.
  3. Ice Chips: Sucking on ice chips can help soothe a sore throat and provide hydration, especially if drinking large amounts of fluids is challenging due to nausea or vomiting.
  4. Bland, Low-Fiber Foods: Stick to bland, low-fiber foods that are easy on the stomach and less likely to irritate the digestive system. The BRAT diet (bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast) is a common recommendation for easing gastrointestinal symptoms. Other suitable options include plain crackers, boiled potatoes, cooked white rice, plain pasta, and cooked or canned fruits without added sugar.
  5. Bananas: Bananas are easily digestible and rich in potassium, which can help replenish electrolytes lost through diarrhea and vomiting. They can also help firm up stools and provide a source of energy during recovery.
  6. Cooked Vegetables: Well-cooked, soft vegetables such as carrots, squash, and spinach can provide essential nutrients while being gentle on the stomach. Avoid raw or fibrous vegetables that may be harder to digest.
  7. Plain Proteins: Lean, easily digestible proteins such as boiled chicken, turkey, or tofu can provide essential amino acids without adding excess fat or spices that may exacerbate symptoms. Avoid fatty or heavily seasoned meats, as well as raw or undercooked proteins.
  8. Yogurt: Plain, probiotic-rich yogurt containing live cultures can help restore beneficial gut bacteria and aid in digestion. Choose yogurt without added sugars or artificial flavors, as these may aggravate symptoms.
  9. Herbal Teas: Herbal teas such as chamomile, ginger, peppermint, or fennel can help soothe the stomach, reduce nausea, and promote digestion. Avoid caffeinated teas, which can increase dehydration.
  10. Avoid Irritants: Steer clear of spicy, greasy, fried, or heavily seasoned foods, as well as caffeine, alcohol, and carbonated beverages, as these may further irritate the digestive tract and exacerbate symptoms.

It’s important to listen to your body and consume foods and beverages that are well tolerated and do not worsen symptoms. Gradually reintroduce solid foods as symptoms improve, starting with small portions of easily digestible foods and gradually expanding to a more varied diet as tolerated. If symptoms persist or worsen, or if you have concerns about your hydration status, seek medical attention promptly for proper evaluation and treatment.

How food poisoning is diagnosed

Diagnosing food poisoning typically involves a combination of clinical assessment, medical history review, physical examination, and sometimes laboratory tests. Here’s an overview of the diagnostic process for food poisoning:

  1. Medical History: The healthcare provider will begin by taking a detailed medical history, including information about the onset and duration of symptoms, recent food consumption, travel history, and potential exposure to contaminated food or water sources. This information helps narrow down the possible causes of illness and guides further evaluation.
  2. Physical Examination: A physical examination may be performed to assess vital signs, hydration status, abdominal tenderness, and other signs of illness. The healthcare provider will look for specific symptoms associated with food poisoning, such as fever, dehydration, abdominal cramps, and signs of gastrointestinal distress.
  3. Stool Sample Analysis: In some cases, the healthcare provider may collect a stool sample for laboratory analysis to identify the presence of pathogens such as bacteria, viruses, parasites, or their toxins. Stool samples may be tested for the presence of common foodborne pathogens using techniques such as culture, polymerase chain reaction (PCR), or enzyme immunoassays (EIA). These tests can help confirm the diagnosis and identify the specific cause of food poisoning.
  4. Blood Tests: Blood tests may be ordered to assess for signs of infection or inflammation, such as elevated white blood cell count (indicating an immune response) or electrolyte imbalances. Blood cultures may also be performed to detect the presence of bacteria in the bloodstream, which can occur in severe cases of foodborne illness or complications such as sepsis.
  5. Diagnostic Imaging: In rare cases or when complications are suspected, diagnostic imaging studies such as abdominal X-rays or ultrasounds may be ordered to evaluate the gastrointestinal tract for signs of inflammation, obstruction, or other abnormalities.
  6. Clinical Evaluation: The healthcare provider will consider the overall clinical presentation, including symptoms, medical history, physical examination findings, and laboratory test results, to make a diagnosis of food poisoning and determine the appropriate treatment plan.
  7. Differential Diagnosis: Food poisoning can mimic other gastrointestinal illnesses, so the healthcare provider may consider other possible causes of symptoms, such as viral gastroenteritis, bacterial infections, parasitic infections, or non-infectious conditions like food allergies or intolerances.
  8. Treatment and Management: Once a diagnosis of food poisoning is confirmed, the healthcare provider will recommend appropriate treatment and management strategies based on the specific cause of illness, severity of symptoms, and individual patient factors. Treatment may include supportive care, hydration therapy, dietary modifications, and, in some cases, antimicrobial medications.

Overall, diagnosing food poisoning requires a comprehensive approach that considers the clinical presentation, medical history, physical examination findings, and laboratory test results to identify the underlying cause of illness and guide appropriate treatment interventions. Prompt diagnosis and treatment are essential for managing symptoms, preventing complications, and promoting recovery from foodborne illness.

Risk factors for food poisoning

Food poisoning can affect anyone, with nearly everyone experiencing it at least once in their lifetime.

However, certain populations are more vulnerable than others, including:

  • Immunocompromised individuals: Those with suppressed immune systems or autoimmune diseases are at higher risk of infection and complications from food poisoning.
  • Pregnant individuals: Pregnancy brings changes to metabolism and the circulatory system, increasing susceptibility to foodborne illnesses.
  • Older adults: Adults aged 65 and above are at greater risk due to potential delays in their immune system’s response to infectious agents.
  • Young children: Children under 5 years old are considered vulnerable due to their less developed immune systems. They are also more prone to dehydration from vomiting and diarrhea.

How to prevent food poisoning

The most effective approach to preventing food poisoning is through proper food handling and avoidance of potentially unsafe foods.

Certain foods pose a higher risk of causing food poisoning due to their production and preparation methods. These include:

  • Meat
  • Poultry
  • Eggs
  • Shellfish

Consuming these foods raw, undercooked, or without proper hygiene practices, such as inadequate hand washing and surface cleaning, can lead to foodborne illness.

Additionally, other foods prone to causing food poisoning include:

  • Raw or undercooked fish products like sushi
  • Deli meats and hot dogs when not heated or cooked thoroughly
  • Ground beef, which may contain meat from multiple animals
  • Unpasteurized milk, cheese, and juice
  • Raw, unwashed fruits and vegetables

To reduce the risk of food poisoning, follow these preventive measures:

  • Always wash hands thoroughly before cooking or consuming food.
  • Ensure food is properly sealed and stored to prevent contamination.
  • Cook meat and eggs thoroughly to kill harmful bacteria.
  • Sanitize utensils and surfaces that come in contact with raw products before using them for other foods.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables before serving them to remove any potential contaminants.

Outlook for food poisoning

The outlook for food poisoning varies depending on several factors, including the type of pathogen involved, the severity of symptoms, the individual’s overall health, and the promptness of treatment. In most cases, food poisoning is a self-limiting illness that resolves within a few days with supportive care and symptomatic treatment. However, certain types of food poisoning can lead to more severe illness, complications, or long-term health effects. Here’s an overview of the outlook for food poisoning:

  1. Mild Cases: Many cases of food poisoning result in mild to moderate gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and fever. In otherwise healthy individuals, these symptoms typically resolve on their own within a few days with rest, hydration, and dietary modifications. Most people recover fully without long-term health effects.
  2. Severe Cases: Some types of food poisoning, particularly those caused by certain bacteria, viruses, or toxins, can lead to more severe illness, complications, or hospitalization. Severe dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, organ damage, or systemic infections may occur in vulnerable populations such as young children, elderly individuals, pregnant women, and those with weakened immune systems. Prompt medical attention and appropriate treatment are essential for managing severe cases and preventing complications.
  3. Chronic Health Effects: In rare cases, food poisoning can lead to chronic health effects or long-term complications, especially if the infection is not properly treated or if the individual has underlying health conditions. Certain foodborne pathogens, such as Listeria monocytogenes, can cause severe illness or invasive infections that may lead to meningitis, septicemia, or miscarriage in pregnant women. Chronic conditions such as reactive arthritis or Guillain-Barré syndrome may also develop following certain types of foodborne infections.
  4. Recovery and Immunity: Following recovery from food poisoning, the body typically develops immunity to the specific pathogen responsible for the illness, providing some level of protection against future infections. However, immunity may vary depending on the type of pathogen and individual factors, and reinfection is possible with certain foodborne pathogens.
  5. Preventive Measures: The outlook for food poisoning can be improved through preventive measures aimed at reducing the risk of contamination and promoting food safety. Practicing proper food handling, storage, and preparation techniques, following food safety guidelines, and staying informed about potential foodborne hazards can help minimize the risk of food poisoning and protect against illness.

Overall, the outlook for food poisoning is generally favorable for most individuals, with mild cases resolving on their own within a few days. However, it’s essential to be aware of the potential risks and complications associated with severe cases of food poisoning, particularly in vulnerable populations, and to seek prompt medical attention if symptoms are severe or persistent. By taking preventive measures and practicing good food safety habits, individuals can reduce their risk of foodborne illness and enjoy safer and healthier meals.

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What is? | Symptoms | Causes | Chart | Treatments | Diet | Diagnosis | Risk factors | Prevention | Outlook