Food poisoning is caused by
or other germs. They
can get into the food we eat or the liquids we drink. We can't taste, smell, or see
these germs (at least not without a microscope). But even though they're tiny, they
can have a powerful effect on the body.
When germs that cause food poisoning get into our systems, they can release toxins.
These toxins are poisons (the reason for the name "food poisoning"), and
can cause diarrhea and vomiting.
Usually, doctors use "food poisoning" to describe an illness that comes
on quickly after eating contaminated food. People often get diarrhea or start throwing
up within a few hours after being infected. The good news is, food poisoning usually
goes away quickly too. Most people recover in a couple of days with no lasting problems.
In a few cases, severe food poisoning can mean a visit to the doctor or hospital.
When people need medical treatment for food poisoning, it's often because of dehydration.
Getting dehydrated is the most common serious complication of food poisoning.
What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Food Poisoning?
How food poisoning shows up depends on the germ that caused it. Someone might start
to feel sick within an hour or two of eating or drinking contaminated food or liquid.
Other times, symptoms may not appear for a number of weeks. In most cases, symptoms
will clear up within 1 to 10 days.
Signs that a child might have food poisoning include:
In rare cases, food poisoning can make someone feel dizzy, have blurry vision,
or notice tingling in the arms. In very rare cases, the weakness that sometimes goes
along with food poisoning will cause trouble breathing.
What Causes Food Poisoning?
When people eat or drink something that's contaminated with germs, they can get
sick with food poisoning. Often, people get food poisoning from animal-based foods
— like meat, poultry, eggs, dairy products, and seafood. But unwashed fruits, vegetables,
and other raw foods also can be contaminated and make people sick. Even water can
cause food poisoning.
Foods and liquids can be contaminated at lots of different points during food preparation,
storage, and handling. For example:
Water that is used to grow food can become infected with animal or human feces
Meat or poultry may come into contact with germs during processing or shipping.
Bacteria can infect foods stored at the wrong temperature or kept too long.
Cooks or other food handlers can contaminate foods if they don't wash their hands
or they use unclean utensils or cutting boards.
People with health conditions (like chronic kidney disease) or weakened immune
systems are more at risk of getting ill from food poisoning than people who are
in good health.
What Germs Cause Food Poisoning?
Germs that often cause food poisoning include:
bacteria are the leading cause of food poisoning in the United States. These bacteria
usually get into foods when they come into contact with animal feces. The main causes
of salmonella poisoning are eating dairy products, undercooked meat, and fresh
produce that hasn't been washed well.
E. coli (Escherichia
coli).E. coli bacteria usually get into
food or water when they come into contact with animal feces. Eating undercooked ground
beef is the most common cause of E. coli poisoning in the United States.
These bacteria are mostly found in unpasteurized dairy products, smoked seafood, and
processed meats like hot dogs and luncheon meats. Listeria bacteria also
can contaminate fruits and vegetables, although that's less common.
These bacteria most commonly infect meat, poultry, and unpasteurized milk. Campylobacter
also can contaminate water. As with other kinds of bacteria, these usually get into
foods through contact with infected animal feces.
Staphylococcus aureus. These bacteria (which can be found
in meats, prepared salads, and foods made with contaminated dairy products) spread
through hand contact, sneezing, or coughing. That means that people who prepare or
handle food can spread the infection.
Shigella bacteria can infect seafood or raw fruits and vegetables. Most of
the time these bacteria spread when people who prepare or handle food don't wash their
hands properly after using the bathroom. Sometimes, an infection causes blood in the
People mostly get this virus from eating raw shellfish or foods that have been handled
by someone who is infected. It can be hard to know the source of an infection because
people may not get sick for 15 to 50 days afterward.
Noroviruses. These viruses usually contaminate food that's been
prepared by an infected handler.
Some of these, including Listeria and E. coli, can cause potentially
dangerous heart, kidney, and bleeding problems.
When Should I Call the Doctor?
Most cases of food poisoning don't need medical attention, but some do. The most
common serious problem from food poisoning is dehydration. A child who is healthy
is unlikely to get dehydrated as long as he or she drinks enough liquids to replace
what's lost through throwing up or diarrhea.
Call the doctor if your child has any of these symptoms:
vomiting that lasts for more than 12 hours
diarrhea with a fever higher than 101°F (38.3°C)
severe belly pain that doesn't go away after a bowel movement
bloody feces (diarrhea or regular poop) or bloody vomit
bowel movements that are black or maroon
a racing or pounding heart
It's important to watch for signs of dehydration, which include:
making little or no urine (pee)
lightheadedness or weakness
If your family recently been to a foreign country and your child starts having
diarrhea or other stomach problems, call your doctor.
Food poisoning (especially dehydration) can be more serious for people
with weakened immune systems or health conditions. If your child has a health
condition (such as kidney problems or sickle
cell disease), call your doctor right away. Pregnant
women also should let their doctors know if they get food poisoning as some germs
can affect the unborn child.
How Is Food Poisoning Diagnosed?
A doctor will ask about what your child ate most recently and when symptoms began.
The doctor will do an exam, and might take a sample of blood, stool, or pee and send
it to a lab for analysis. This will help the doctor find out what's causing the illness.
How Is Food Poisoning Treated?
Usually, food poisoning runs its course and kids get better on their own.
Occasionally, though, doctors prescribe antibiotics to treat more severe types of
bacterial food poisoning. A child with severe dehydration may need to be treated in
a hospital with
Food poisoning usually goes away on its own in a few days. To help your child feel
better in the meantime, make sure he or she:
Gets plenty of rest.
Drinks liquids to protect against dehydration. Electrolyte solutions work, but
anything except milk or caffeinated beverages will do.
Takes small, frequent sips to make it easier to keep the fluids down.
Avoids solid foods and dairy products until any diarrhea has stopped.
Do not give over-the-counter anti-diarrhea medicines. These can
make the symptoms of food poisoning last longer. When diarrhea and vomiting have stopped,
offer your child small, bland, low-fat meals for a few days to prevent further stomach
If symptoms become serious or you see signs of dehydration, call your doctor.
How Can We Prevent Food Poisoning?
Follow these tips to help protect your family from food poisoning:
Teach everyone in your family to wash
their hands well and often, especially after using the bathroom, before touching
food, and after touching raw food. Use soap and warm water and scrub for at least
Clean all utensils, cutting boards, and surfaces that you use to prepare food
with hot, soapy water.
Don't serve unpasteurized milk or food that contains unpasteurized milk.
Wash all raw vegetables and fruits that you can't peel yourself.
Keep raw foods (especially meat, poultry, and seafood) away from other foods until
Use perishable food or any food with an expiration date as soon as possible.
Cook all food from animal sources to a safe internal temperature. For ground beef
and pork, this means at least 160°F (71°C). For solid cuts of meat, the safe
temperature is 145°F (63°C). For chicken and turkey (ground and whole), it's
at least 165°F (74°C). Cook chicken eggs until the yolk is firm. Fish generally
is safe to eat once it reaches a temperature of 145°F (63°C).
Refrigerate leftovers quickly, preferably in containers with lids that snap tightly
Defrost foods in the refrigerator, a microwave, or cold water. Food should never
be thawed at room temperature.
If food is past its expiration date, tastes funny, or smells strange, throw it
If you're pregnant, avoid all raw or undercooked meat or seafood, smoked seafood,
raw eggs and products that might contain raw eggs, soft cheeses, unpasteurized milk
and juice, patés, prepared salads, luncheon meats, and hot dogs.
Don't drink water from streams or untreated wells.
If someone in your family gets food poisoning, tell your local health department.
Officials there might be able to find the cause and stop an outbreak that could affect