Last night’s neighborhood barbecue was the event of the season, but today you’re regretting that last hotdog. Vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps and maybe other symptoms have set in – and you’re hoping it will all be over soon.

Do you have food poisoning?

Food poisoning is pretty common. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 48 million Americans get sick from a foodborne illness each year.

Read on to learn more about what causes food poisoning, symptoms of the illness, what to do if you think you have it and how you can prevent food poisoning in the future.

Food poisoning causes (and how you’re most likely to get it)

“Food poisoning” is the umbrella term for the type of illness you get from something you ate or drank. When certain bacteria, parasites or viruses are present in the food you eat, they can make you very sick. Some of the most likely suspects include:

  • Bacteria like E. coli, salmonella, campylobacter, shigella and listeria
  • Parasites like giardia intestinalis and cryptosporidium
  • Rotavirus
  • Norovirus

Most of these contaminates are killed during food preparation, either by cooking at high heat or washing foods before you eat them – if not sooner by food packaging processes. But sometimes those microorganisms accidentally make it into your digestive system because food wasn’t properly prepared or stored before or after it was made, or it was cross-contaminated.

Foods that can cause food poisoning

Some foods are more susceptible than others when it comes to carrying the microbes that can make you sick. Raw animal products are among the most likely culprits, but the list extends beyond the meat aisle. The most common foods to cause food poisoning are:

  • Undercooked chicken, beef, pork and turkey
  • Raw fruits and vegetables, particularly sprouts
  • Raw (unpasteurized) milk, soft cheeses, ice creams and yogurts
  • Raw or undercooked eggs
  • Raw flour
  • Undercooked seafood or shellfish

Where food poisoning may be more likely to happen

When virtually any food can lead to food poisoning, you might think it’s safer to stay home and cook. Of course, cooking at home is beneficial for a variety of reasons, but when it comes to food poisoning, it’s actually more likely to happen in your kitchen than at a restaurant. This is because restaurants in the United States are strictly monitored by food safety commissions and health departments, with staff trained to keep cross-contamination from happening.

But some of the most common places food poisoning can take place is outdoor events like picnics, barbecues or tailgating parties – especially if it’s a hot day. Food may often sit out for longer than it should without proper refrigeration or insulation, which can make food poisoning a bigger risk.

Symptoms of food poisoning to watch for

If you’ve ever had food poisoning before, you probably know just how miserable it can be – even if it passes pretty quickly. But it’s important to know that you may not experience the same symptoms if you get food poisoning again.

Some of the most common food poisoning symptoms are:

  • Nausea
  • Upset stomach
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea (and possibly bloody stools)
  • Stomach pain and cramps
  • Fever

Along with your symptoms, it can also be helpful to think about:

  • What you’ve eaten and drank recently
  • If anyone you ate or drank with have similar symptoms
  • If you’ve started or stopped taking any medications
  • If you’ve traveled recently

How fast do food poisoning symptoms come on?

Food poisoning symptoms usually come on pretty quickly, often within hours or the first day of eating or drinking something contaminated. But depending on the type of contamination, food poisoning symptoms may not show up for several days.

How long does food poisoning last?

In most cases of mild to moderate food poisoning, symptoms usually get better pretty quickly. Some people can feel better in hours, but 1-2 days is pretty typical and medical treatment isn’t usually necessary. Though, some people may have some symptoms linger for a week or so.

People most at risk for severe food poisoning symptoms

We all know that school classmate who ate raw chicken as a joke and had absolutely no ill effects. It’s true that some people are naturally able to tolerate potential directional threats, but that’s no reason for any of us to take chances. There are specific groups who are particularly vulnerable to more severe food poisoning symptoms or complications and should take extra precaution. These include:

  • People aged 65 and older
  • Children younger than age 5
  • People with diabetes, liver or kidney disease, HIV/AIDS, cancer or anyone whose immune system is weakened
  • Pregnant people

Food poisoning when pregnant

Listeria is a type of food poisoning that can have harmful consequences for an unborn baby. In many cases, you may not even know if you’ve contracted listeria, so the best course of action when you’re pregnant is to avoid foods where you might be at risk.

You may not be able to control every possible food poisoning scenario. But there are some simple, effective food poisoning prevention guidelines to follow if you want to significantly reduce your risks:

  1. Wash your hands – Be sure to scrub your hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds before and after handling food and, of course, after using the bathroom.
  2. Keep raw foods separate from cooked foods – Never put cooked food on an unwashed plate that previously held raw food. Make sure to use separate cutting boards for meats and vegetables, too.
  3. Use a cooler – Cars can get up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit in just 10-15 minutes on hot days. Cold foods should be stored with ice or frozen gel packs until serving time. Hot foods should be stored in an insulated container.
  4. Use the 2-hour rule – Food should not sit out in the sun any longer than 2 hours. If it’s 90 degrees Fahrenheit or hotter, that time limit drops to 1 hour.
  5. Cook foods thoroughly and check their internal temperature – Beef and pork should be grilled or cooked to 160 degrees Fahrenheit and until all the pink is gone. Chicken should be cooked to 165 degrees Fahrenheit and until there is no red in the joints. And fresh fish should cook to 145 degrees Fahrenheit and until it flakes with a fork.

How to treat food poisoning if you do get it

Despite our best efforts, food poisoning happens. As we mentioned earlier, 48 million people in the United States get food poisoning each year – that’s about 15% of people.

For most, symptoms will be mild and pass quickly, and no medical treatment is typically needed – just lots of self-care.

1. Rest and try to stay hydrated

If you have food poisoning, getting enough rest and preventing dehydration are crucial. We know it may be easier said than done but try to drink water (or other caffeine-free clear liquids) in frequent, small amounts. (If you drink too much too fast, you might throw up.)

2. Follow the BRAT diet to get the nourishment you need

When you start to eat again, avoid spicy, hot or high-fat foods.

Instead, opt for the BRAT diet: bananas, rice, applesauce and toast. This is a time-tested method that helps your body get the calories you need without upsetting your stomach. Also, stay away from alcohol or caffeine for another day or two, and hold off on dairy products like milk and ice cream until you’re back to feeling 100%.

3. Call your nurse line if you have questions

Some providers and health systems offer their patients a nurse line they can call if they have questions about self-care or when to see a doctor. We offer our patients and insurance plan members 24/7 CareLine access at 612-339-3663 or 800-551-0859.

When to seek medical care for food poisoning

If you or your child is at an increased risk for more serious symptoms or complications from food poisoning, call your doctor right away.

But no matter your age or risk, seek medical care if you experience any of the following:

  • Changes in thinking or behavior
  • Diarrhea that lasts more than one day for kids and three days for adults
  • High fever
    • 103 degrees Fahrenheit or higher in adults
    • 102 degrees Fahrenheit or higher in children (along with diarrhea and vomiting)
    • Any fever in kids 2 and under (along with diarrhea and vomiting)
  • Symptoms of dehydration like excessive thirst, dry mouth, little or no urination, weakness, dizziness or lightheadedness (especially in children)

Specifically for infants and children, watch for any of the following that occur along with vomiting and diarrhea:

  • Unusual stools with blood or pus, or that are black or tarry
  • Severe stomach or rectum pain
  • A history of other medical problems