Nearly every week, the media reports another foodborne outbreak. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 48,000 people get sick and 3,000 people die each year from foodborne illness.
But we all feel nauseated or have diarrhea sometimes, and it usually isn’t food poisoning. So how do you know if you have food poisoning or if you just ate something that didn’t agree with you?
Unfortunately, there’s no surefire way to tell unless you visit your doctor and get a physical exam or stool sample, says Diana Torres, a clinical dietitian at the Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute. But you can look for clues in how your body reacts.
What to watch for
Symptoms of foodborne illness, or food poisoning, typically develop within 36 hours of eating contaminated food, but they may not appear for days or even weeks after exposure.
“Food poisoning usually begins with stomach cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting,” says Torres. Specific pathogens can cause other symptoms though, including:
- Fever, chills, and bloody diarrhea (Salmonella, Shigella, and Campylobacter jejuni)
- Diarrhea and loose stools for up to 3 days after eating contaminated food (Escherichia coli or E. coli)
- Weakness, blurred vision, sensitivity to light, and double vision (Clostridium botulinum, or botulism)
Botulism is the most concerning. It results from ingesting pathogens that grow in improperly canned foods. If you’re experiencing any of symptoms of botulism, see a doctor immediately.
“Clostridium botulinum produces a nerve toxin that, if left untreated, can cause muscle paralysis,” says Torres.
If, however, you repeatedly feel sick to your stomach after eating a certain food or category of food (like dairy), chances are you have a food sensitivity, not food poisoning. Just like food poisoning, food sensitivities may cause symptoms such as stomach pain, cramping, and diarrhea.
What to do
If you suspect a food sensitivity, identifying the culprit behind your symptoms may require some detective work, including a visit to your physician.
If you have food poisoning though, most episodes clear up within a few days without any medical intervention—and symptoms don’t recur. More severe forms could take days or even weeks.
To streamline your path back to wellness, rest and drink plenty of fluids. Broth, tea, and coconut water are good options. Avoid sugary beverages, which can make diarrhea worse.
“When you think your stomach is more settled, try eating small amounts of bland foods—things like saltines, toast, bananas, rice, soup, and oatmeal,” says Torres.
When to get help
For people who are very young, very old, or who have compromised immune systems, foodborne illness can lead to serious complications including dehydration, seizures, and kidney failure.
“If you fall into one of these high-risk groups, you should see a doctor as soon as symptoms develop,” says Torres.
No matter what your health status, you should visit your doctor or an urgent care center if you experience any of the following symptoms:
- You can’t hold down food or water
- You feel dehydrated
- You’re confused, dizzy, or lightheaded
- You have a fever
- You experience 3 or more episodes of diarrhea and/or vomiting within a 24-hour period
Finally, if you get food poisoning, report the illness to your local health department, particularly if you can identify the food or restaurant that’s responsible for your tummy troubles. You can also submit a report to the CDC by calling 1-800-CDC-INFO or visiting www.foodsafety.org.
What you should know
Sidestepping contaminated food isn’t as simple as avoiding the usual suspects, like lunch meat, egg-based salads, or undercooked meat. In fact, recent headlines point to seemingly innocent culprits: spinach sporting E. Coli, cantaloupe contaminated with Salmonella, and turkey laced with Listeria.
Unfortunately, these pathogens are not innocuous. Even healthy individuals may feel tired, weak, and sick to their stomachs for days. Plus, research suggests people who experience food poisoning could suffer from long-term effects, including an imbalance of gut bacteria.
Read: Is It IBS or IBD?
The US food supply is remarkably safe, but we all have to do our part, too:
“Wash your hands, cook food to proper temperatures, and make sure to promptly refrigerate—and reheat—leftovers,” says Torres. “It’s also important to thoroughly rinse produce, even if it says ‘triple washed’ on the package.”