Food Poisoning: When to Call the Doctor

About 48 million people get food-related illnesses each year in the United States. Of those, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die. The culprits are strains of bacteria (such as Salmonella and E. coli), parasites, or toxins that can taint food.

Viruses (such as Calicivirus or Norwalk virus) can also be spread when you consume food that has been handled by people who are sick. These viruses are often responsible for bouts of illnesses on cruise ships and can cause foodborne illness in other large settings, such as at parties, restaurants and banquet hall functions.

Food poisoning symptoms

The main symptoms of a foodborne illness, which many people mistake for a bout of the stomach flu, are diarrhea, vomiting, headache, fever and stomach ache. Symptoms can start within hours of eating a tainted food but typically begin one to two days after exposure and last for one to 10 days.

While most cases go away on their own (after a couple of agonizing days), people exposed to large amounts of the bacteria or virus can get very sick. Others who can become very ill include people in high-risk groups, such as the elderly and those with compromised immune systems or chronic medical problems such as heart disease or diabetes.

When to call the doctor

High-risk people should see a doctor as soon as a food-related infection is suspected. Healthy people should see a doctor if they have bloody diarrhea, weight loss, a fever of 101°F or higher, severe abdominal pain, neurological symptoms (including muscle twitching, numbness, or tingling) or prolonged diarrhea.

Food poisoning treatments

Bed rest and the consumption of fluids (such as water, diluted fruit juice, clear vegetable or chicken broth, or an over-the-counter electrolyte solution) may be all that are needed to treat the illness. Your doctor may prescribe oral antibiotics; usually, however, this is not necessary.

Over-the-counter antidiarrhea medications, such as loperamide (Imodium A-D) and bismuth (Pepto-Bismol), may relieve cramps and minimize diarrhea. However, Imodium A-D may worsen the effects of some bacterial infections (including Salmonella, Shigella, and Campylobacterjejuni) and should not be used without consulting a doctor if a food-related infection is suspected.

In any case, neither medication should be taken for more than 48 hours. Very high-risk people and those with severe infections may need to be hospitalized.