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Foodborne Illness: First Aid

All foods naturally contain small amounts of bacteria. But improper handling, cooking, or storage of food can lead to bacterial blooms that can lead to disease. Parasites, viruses, toxins and chemicals can also contaminate food and cause disease.

Symptoms of food poisoning vary by source of contamination. Typically includes:

  • diarrhea, possibly bloody
  • nausea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Vomiting
  • Dehydration
  • Low-grade fever (sometimes)

If you are severely dehydrated, you may notice:

  • Dizziness or lightheadedness, especially when standing up
  • Fatigue
  • dark urine
  • less frequent urination
  • thirst

Sickness after eating contaminated food depends on organism, exposure, age and health.

High-risk groups include:

  • older adults. As you age, your immune system may not respond as quickly and effectively to infectious microbes as it once did.
  • Infants and toddlers. Their immune systems are not yet fully developed.
  • People suffer from chronic diseases such as diabetes or AIDS , or chemotherapy or radiation therapy for cancer, can reduce your immune response.
  • Pregnant women. Pregnancy changes your immune system, making it harder to fight off infections that can affect you and your developing baby.

If you have food poisoning:

  • sipping liquids, such as sports drinks or water, to prevent dehydration. Drinking water too quickly can worsen nausea and vomiting, so try taking small sips often over a few hours instead of drinking a lot at once.
  • Pay attention to urination. You should urinate regularly and your urine should be light. Infrequent passing of dark urine is a sign of dehydration. Dizziness and lightheadedness are also symptoms of dehydration. Seek medical attention if any of these symptoms occur and you cannot drink enough fluids.
  • Avoid antidiarrheal medications. They may slow your body’s ability to remove organisms or toxins from your system. When in doubt, ask your doctor about your specific situation.

Do not give antidiarrheal medicines to infants and young children as this may cause serious side effects.

Foodborne illness usually improves on its own within a few days.

Call your doctor if:

  • Vomiting for more than two days
  • Diarrhea for more than a few days
  • Diarrhea that turns bloody, black, or tarry
  • Fever is 101 F (38.3 C) or higher
  • Dizziness or fainting when standing
  • Confusion
  • Worrying abdominal pain

Seek emergency medical attention if:

  • You have severe symptoms such as severe abdominal pain or watery diarrhea that becomes very bloody within 24 hours.
  • You are in a high-risk group.
  • You suspect botulism po isolate. Botulism is a potentially fatal form of food poisoning caused by ingestion of a toxin that forms from certain spores in food. Botulinum toxin is most commonly found in home canned foods, especially green beans or tomatoes.

    Symptoms of botulism typically begin 12 to 36 hours after eating contaminated food and may include headaches, blurred vision, muscle weakness and eventually paralysis. Some people also experience nausea and vomiting, constipation, urinary retention, difficulty breathing, and dry mouth. These symptoms require immediate medical attention.

August. December 12, 2022

  • Kellerman R. et al. foodborne illness. In: Conn’s Current Therapies 2022. Elsevier; 2022. Accessed August 3, 2022.
  • People at risk of foodborne illness. Food and Drug Administration. Accessed August 3, 2022.
  • What you need to know about foodborne illness. Food and Drug Administration. Accessed August 3, 2022.
  • Viral gastroenteritis (stomach flu). National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Accessed August 3, 2022.
  • LaRocque R et al. Treatment of acute diarrhea in adults in a resource-rich setting. Accessed August 3, 2022.
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