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Definition Return to top
Food poisoning is the result of eating organisms or toxins in contaminated food. Most cases of food poisoning are from common bacteria such as Staphylococcus or E. coli.
Causes Return to top
Food poisoning can affect one person or it can occur as an outbreak in a group of people who all ate the same contaminated food.
Food poisoning tends to occur at picnics, school cafeterias, and large social functions. In these cases, food may be left out of the refrigerator too long or food preparation techniques may not be clean. Food poisoning often occurs from eating undercooked meats, dairy products, or food containing mayonnaise (like coleslaw or potato salad) that have sat out of the refrigerator too long.
Food poisoning can be caused by:
Botulism is a very serious form of food poisoning that can be fatal. It can come from improper home canning.
Infants and elderly people have the greatest risk for food poisoning. You are also at higher risk if:
Pregnant and breastfeeding women have to be especially careful to avoid food poisoning.
Symptoms Return to top
The symptoms from the most common types of food poisoning generally start within 2 - 6 hours of eating the food. That time may be longer (even a number of days) or shorter, depending on the cause of the food poisoning.
Possible symptoms include:
Exams and Tests Return to top
Your health care provider will examine you for signs of food poisoning, such as tenderness in the abdomen and dehydration. Your provider will also ask about foods you have eaten recently.
Tests to find the cause may be done on your:
Even if you have food poisoning, however, these tests may not be able to prove it.
In rare but possibly serious cases, your health care provider may order one or more of the following procedures:
Treatment Return to top
You will usually recover from the most common types of food poisoning within a couple of days. The goal is to make you feel better and avoid dehydration.
If you have diarrhea and are unable to drink fluids (for example, due to nausea or vomiting), you may need medical attention and intravenous fluids. This is especially true for young children.
If you take diuretics, you need to manage diarrhea carefully. Talk to your health care provider -- you may need to stop taking the diuretic while you have the diarrhea. NEVER stop or change medications without talking to your health care provider and getting specific instructions.
For the most common causes of food poisoning, your doctor would NOT prescribe antibiotics.
If you have eaten toxins from mushrooms or shellfish, you will need medical attention right away. The emergency room doctor will take steps to empty out your stomach and remove the toxin.
Outlook (Prognosis) Return to top
Most people fully recover from the most common types of food poisoning within 12 - 48 hours. Serious complications can arise, however, from certain types of food poisoning.
Possible Complications Return to top
Dehydration is the most common complication. This can occur from any of the causes of food poisoning.
Less common but much more serious complications include:
When to Contact a Medical Professional Return to top
Call your health care provider if:
Call 911 if:
Prevention Return to top
To prevent food poisoning, take the following steps when preparing food:
If other people may have eaten the food that made you sick, let them know. If you think the food was contaminated when you bought it from a store or restaurant, tell the store and your local health department.
References Return to top
Archer GL. Staphylococcal infections. In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Textbook of Medicine. 23rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier;2007:chap 310.
Arguin P. Approach to the patient before and after travel. In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Textbook of Medicine. 23rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier;2007:chap 308.
Guerrant RL. Escherichia enteric infections. In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Textbook of Medicine. 23rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier;2007:chap 327.Update Date: 3/5/2009 Updated by: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine; and George F. Longstreth, MD, Department of Gastroenterology, Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program, San Diego, California. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.