Food poisoning, also known as food-borne illness, is the painful consequence of eating spoiled or contaminated food. Although it’s uncomfortable, food poisoning is very common – affecting approximately one in six Americans yearly – and often is not life threatening.
Food can become contaminated by bacteria, viruses, and even parasites; in some cases the contamination occurs because of poor hygiene or handling (not washing hands properly, putting raw meat in contact with fresh foods, dirty water), and in others food may simply spoil after sitting too long after its expiration or in the heat, allowing bacteria to multiply.
The symptoms of food poisoning are usually felt in the stomach first: nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and cramping, and diarrhea are some of the more painful ones, although some people may experience a loss of appetite, excessive salivation, or extremely dry mouth as well. General weakness and fatigue, as well as a fever or confusion are also signs; experiencing three or more of any of these symptoms may indicate food poisoning. Many people associate diarrhea with food-borne illness, but black, tarry, and especially bloody stools are common symptoms, too.
Maintaining hydration is essential: vomiting, diarrhea, and sweating all leech fluids and electrolytes from the body and can cause dangerous dehydration, so replenishing what’s lost is the main component of treatment. For some people, especially children or the elderly, this may require hospitalization with an IV. Certain kinds of food poisoning may require antibiotics or other medication to treat; if home treatment is advised, over-the-counter medications to settle the stomach or ease diarrhea may be sufficient.
Although many cases of food poisoning will resolve on their own after a few days, they should still be taken seriously. Call a doctor if you experience symptoms around 30 minutes after eating, have bloody stool or vomit, show signs of dehydration (excessive thirst, lack of urination), have severe abdominal pain, or can’t keep fluids down. It’s best to consult a doctor – they may advise home treatment with plenty of fluids and rest, but they may catch a serious case such as botulism or salmonella. Symptoms like blurred vision, difficulty speaking, and muscle paralysis are signs that you need immediate medical attention.