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Patient education: Food poisoning (The Basics)

Patient education: Food poisoning (The Basics)

What is food poisoning? — Food poisoning is an illness that can cause nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. Food poisoning is caused by eating food that contains germs, such as bacteria, viruses, or parasites. One of the most common causes of food poisoning is norovirus. Two examples of bacteria that are common causes of food poisoning are Salmonella and E. coli. Parasites include tiny worms that people can catch in some countries.

How can germs get in food? — Germs can get in food in different ways:

People who are sick can spread their germs to the food they cook if they do not wash their hands before they touch the food.

Germs can live in or on food. If food is not washed or cooked enough, the germs in it or on it can infect people.

Germs from one food can get on another food. This can happen when a person uses the same cutting board or knife to prepare different foods.

What are the symptoms of food poisoning? — Symptoms can happen right after a person eats the food, or not until days or weeks later. Common symptoms of food poisoning include:

Nausea or vomiting

Belly pain

Diarrhea that can be watery or bloody


Other symptoms can include problems with the nervous system, such as blurry vision or feeling dizzy. But these problems are not as common.

Is there anything I can do on my own to feel better? — Yes. You can:

Drink enough liquids so that your body does not get "dehydrated." Dehydration is when the body loses too much water.

Eat small meals that do not have a lot of fat in them

Rest, if you feel tired

Should I see a doctor or nurse? — See your doctor or nurse if:

You have more than six runny bowel movements in 24 hours.

You have blood in your vomit or bowel movements.

You have a fever higher than 101.3°F (38.5°C) that does not go away after a day.

You have severe belly pain.

You are 70 years of age or older.

Your body has lost too much water. This is called "dehydration." Signs include:

Lots of diarrhea that is very watery

Feeling very tired


Dry mouth or tongue

Muscle cramps



Urine that is very yellow, or not needing to urinate for more than five hours

Young children and older adults with symptoms should make sure to see their doctor or nurse. That's because these groups can get dehydrated more easily.

Do I need to have tests? — Many people do not need to have tests. But it's possible that your doctor will do tests to check if you are dehydrated or to figure out which germ caused your food poisoning. Your doctor might do:

Blood tests

Tests on a sample of your bowel movement

How is food poisoning treated? — Many people do not need any treatment, because their symptoms will get better on their own. But depending on your situation, your doctor might recommend:

Fluids through an "IV" – An IV is a thin tube that goes into your vein. People with a lot of diarrhea or vomiting might need IV fluids to treat or prevent dehydration.

Antibiotics – These medicines treat bacterial infections. But most people do not need antibiotics, even if they have a bacterial infection. If you are very sick with fever and blood in your bowel movements, your doctor might prescribe antibiotics to help you get better faster.

Some people find that anti-diarrhea medicines help. These include loperamide (brand names: Diamode, Imodium), diphenoxylate-atropine (brand name: Lomotil), and bismuth subsalicylate (sample brand names: Pepto-Bismol, Kaopectate). You should not take loperamide or diphenoxylate-atropine if you have a fever or blood in your bowel movements. Also, taking too much loperamide has led to serious heart problems in some people. If you have health problems or already take other medicines, talk to your doctor or nurse before trying loperamide. For all of these medicines, it's important to not take more than the label tells you to. Children should not take anti-diarrhea medicines.

Can food poisoning be prevented? — You can reduce your chance of getting food poisoning or spreading germs that can cause food poisoning by:

Washing your hands after changing diapers, going to the bathroom, blowing your nose, touching animals, or taking out the trash.

Staying home from work or school until you feel better (if you are sick).

Paying attention to food safety. Tips include:

Not drinking unpasteurized milk or foods made with it

Washing fruits and vegetables well before eating them

Keeping the refrigerator colder than 40°F (4.4°C) and the freezer below 0°F (-18°C)

Cooking meat and seafood until well done

Cooking eggs until the yolk is firm

Washing hands, knives, and cutting boards after they touch raw food

For more food safety tips to prevent food poisoning, see the table (table 1).

Pregnant women and people whose bodies have trouble fighting off infections can do more things to prevent getting food poisoning. If you are pregnant or have trouble fighting off infections, talk to your doctor or nurse about other ways to prevent getting food poisoning.

More on this topic

Patient education: Diarrhea in adolescents and adults (The Basics)
Patient education: Diarrhea in children (The Basics)
Patient education: Nausea and vomiting in adults (The Basics)
Patient education: Viral gastroenteritis in adults (The Basics)
Patient education: Rotavirus infection (The Basics)
Patient education: Enteric (typhoid and paratyphoid) fever (The Basics)
Patient education: Campylobacter infection (The Basics)
Patient education: Listeria (The Basics)

Patient education: Foodborne illness (food poisoning) (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Acute diarrhea in adults (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Acute diarrhea in children (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Chronic diarrhea in adults (Beyond the Basics)

This topic retrieved from UpToDate on: Jan 02, 2023.
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