What to Do When You Think You Have Food Poisoning

You're hunched over the toilet, regretting your food consumption decisions over the past few hours. "I think I ate something bad. Is this food poisoning?" you ask yourself. If you don't have the time or energy to ask your doctor for advice, then you've come to the right place. Read on to learn more about food poisoning and what to do when you think you have it.

Food poisoning happens when you eat food contaminated with germs. This foodborne illness can be inconvenient, but you can usually manage it at home if you're healthy. In fact, about 48 million people experience food poisoning every year, and most of them recover without ever seeing a doctor. 

Germs can contaminate your food anytime during harvesting or catching, packaging, storing, and transporting from farm to table.

Food can quickly harbor germs if you 

  • Are sick while handling it.
  • Don't cook it thoroughly.
  • Don't store it properly.
  • Don't reheat it well enough.
  • Don't throw it away after its expiration date.
  • Don't wash your hands before and after handling it.
  • Leave it out of the fridge or freezer for too long.

Here are some common culprits of food poisoning and the foods they usually contaminate:

  • Staphylococcus aureus: These bacteria usually live on the skin and transfer to food quickly if you don't wash your hands. They easily grow on meat, egg or potato salads, cream puffs, or pastries left too long at room temperature.
  • Escherichia coli: E. coli can thrive in raw or undercooked meat, soft cheeses, unpasteurized milk or juices, fresh vegetables, and fruits.
  • Campylobacter: This germ loves raw or undercooked poultry, shellfish, and unpasteurized milk.
  • Clostridium perfringens: Meat, poultry, gravies, and stews left too long at room temperature may harbor this germ.
  • Salmonella: This bacteria flourishes in poultry, eggs, dairy products, fresh fruits and vegetables, and nuts.

Symptoms of Food Poisoning

Symptoms of food poisoning can start within a few hours to a few days of eating bad food.

Mild symptoms

  • Fever and chills
  • Diarrhea and stomach cramps
  • Loss of appetite
  • Muscle aches
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Weakness

Severe symptoms

  • Diarrhea with bloody stool (blood in your poop)
  • Diarrhea that lasts longer than three days
  • High fever (Temperature over 102° F)
  • Dehydration
  • Inability to keep food or liquid down
  • Not peeing much

What Should I Do If I Think I Have Food Poisoning?

If you have mild symptoms, you can follow these guidelines to nurse yourself back to health:

  • Stay at home. Return to work or school once you haven't had diarrhea in two days.
  • Drink plenty of liquids. The best fluids that prevent dehydration include broth, ginger ale, popsicles, and oral rehydration solutions that contain electrolytes (such as Gatorade or Pedialyte). Drinking fluids that contain sugar, salt, or electrolytes helps you keep the liquid in your body. When dehydrated, your kidneys easily attract and filter out water, making you more likely to pee out all the water you drink.
  • Eat small meals consisting of bland foods. Foods with too many ingredients may irritate your digestive system and worsen your symptoms. Here are a few great choices: bananas, apples, rice, toast, and crackers. Avoid caffeine, alcohol, soda, spicy foods, and greasy foods.
  • Rest as much as you can. Your body is working hard to fight the infection, so taking a break from work, school, or other duties is okay.
  • Take over-the-counter medications for symptom relief. Over-the-counter medications can't cure food poisoning or help your body get rid of the germs faster, but they can help you feel better.

Here are over-the-counter medications you can take:

  • For diarrhea: Bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol) or loperamide (Imodium)
  • For nausea: Dimenhydrinate (Dramamine) or meclizine (Bonine)
  • For fever or discomfort: Acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin)

When to see a doctor

  • Your symptoms don't get better within a few days.
  • You vomit so much that you can't keep food or liquids down.
  • You are not peeing as much as you used to.
  • You start to get confused.
  • You are pregnant.
  • You are elderly.
  • You have another medical condition or complex health history.
  • Your immune system is weak from medications or other health conditions like cancer or HIV.

What to do if your baby or young child is sick

  • If your baby or young child has a fever along with digestive symptoms (vomiting, diarrhea, etc.), take them to the doctor as soon as possible. Food poisoning in young children can be dangerous.
  • Do not give your child any over-the-counter medications. Wait until your doctor gives you approval.

Possible Complications from Severe Food Poisoning

  • Blood clots in your kidneys (hemolytic uremic syndrome): Some bacteria (especially e. Coli) can cause blood clots in your kidneys. This condition can lead to kidney failure.
  • Infection in your bloodstream: Germs in your digestive system can spread to your bloodstream and infect other organs.
  • Meningitis: Germs can spread to your nervous system and cause brain and spinal cord inflammation.
  • Sepsis: Infection in your bloodstream can lead to sepsis, a condition in which your body begins to attack its organs.
  • Pregnancy and infant complications: Food poisoning may cause miscarriage and stillbirth in pregnant women. In the infant, it may also cause meningitis or sepsis.

How Long Does Food Poisoning Usually Last?

The length of your foodborne illness depends on various factors:

  • What bacteria or virus you consumed
  • How much of it
  • How strong your immune system is

If you are healthy, you can typically expect to purge the infection from your body within 12 to 48 hours. Some bacteria, such as campylobacter, may take weeks to leave your body.

Prevention of Food Poisoning In the Future?

Here are a few important ways you can prevent food poisoning in the future:

  • Always handle your food with care. Store it properly, cook it thoroughly, and clean surfaces before and after placing food on them.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water before and after handling your food, especially raw meat or fresh vegetables.
  • Separate raw meat, seafood, poultry, and eggs from other food.
  • Prepare and wash fresh fruits and vegetables before handling raw meat.
  • Cook food at their recommended lengths and temperatures to kill germs.
  • Wash plates and utensils after every use.
  • Don't leave foods that spoil quickly at room temperature for over two hours.
  • Clean your refrigerator regularly.
  • Throw out old, expired, or suspicious food.

Pregnant women or people with weakened immune systems should avoid eating the following:

  • Raw or undercooked meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, or any food containing them (like raw cookie dough)
  • Raw vegetables
  • Unpasteurized milk and juices
  • Unpasteurized and soft cheeses
  • Uncooked luncheon meats, hotdogs, and deli meats

You may be unable to control how other people handle your food at the farm, grocery store, or restaurant. Still, you can make intelligent decisions about where you shop for groceries and order food. Health departments use letter grades to rate food businesses on their cleanliness, food storage, and food handling techniques. Look for restaurants with the letter grade "A", as they have little to no violations of food safety guidelines.

If you have food poisoning, be patient and give yourself grace. Your body needs time to purge this foodborne illness before you return to your everyday life. Take this time to focus on rest, hydration, and nutrition. 


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, December 7). Food Poisoning Symptoms.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, December 19). Foodborne Germs and Illnesses.

Cleveland Clinic. (2022, August 5). How Long Food Poisoning Lasts and What To Do About It.

Mayo Clinic. (2022, December 30). Food poisoning.

MN Department of Health. (n.d.). Proper Cooking Temperatures for Safe Food At Home: Use Proper Cooking Temperatures to Ensure Safe Food.

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. (2019, June). Treatment for Food Poisoning.

NHS Inform. (2023, May 29). Food poisoning.

Arleen Veloria

Arleen Veloria, BSN, RN, CPN

Arleen Veloria is a freelance writer with over 8 years of clinical nursing experience. As a Registered Nurse and Certified Pediatric Nurse, she specializes in writing about health and wellness, nursing, and parenting. She is also a U.S. Navy Nurse Corps veteran, military wife, and mother.