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How Do You Know if It's Food Poisoning?

"A lot of times it is not possible to confirm one way or the other if it's food poisoning," Burkhart says.

But doctors will try, taking a careful history, which can yield clues. For instance, Burkhart says if symptoms start before you’ve even finished the meal -- your stomach starts to feel queasy -- it's a good guess you've been infected with an organism that causes food-borne illness.

If everyone who has eaten at the same picnic or restaurant is suddenly sick, that, too, points to food poisoning.

Food Poisoning: What Can You Do to Self-Treat?

If the food-borne illness is mild, you can treat yourself and wait for symptoms to pass, experts say. You can lower a slight fever with acetaminophen. (Call a doctor for high fevers.)

Keep yourself (or your child) hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids. "Make sure you take frequent sips of water, or drink clear soups, clear sodas, or juice mixed with water," Dees says.

You can also buy oral rehydration solutions, such as CeraLyte, Oralyte, and Pedialyte. "That has the right mix of all the salt, sugar, and other nutrients you lose when you have diarrhea or vomiting," Dees says.

Dee says many sports drinks don’t have the ideal balance of electrolytes, and should be avoided.

When Should You Call the Doctor?

"If the abdominal pain is severe, it's worth seeing the doctor," Solnick says. "If you have intractable vomiting, it's worth seeing the doctor."

Anyone at serious risk from dehydration should call the doctor, including young children, the elderly, and people with underlying medical conditions, such as those with chronic heart problems.

Burkhart offers this advice: "If you are vomiting so badly and having so much diarrhea you are getting lightheaded when you stand up and can't keep fluid down," it's time to see a doctor.

Other reasons to call the doctor:

  • Neurologic signs, such as numbness.
  • A fever over 100 degrees, especially if you can't control it with acetaminophen.
  • Blood in the mucous or stool.
  • Vomiting that persists more than a couple of days.
  • Diarrhea that is substantial and persists more than three days or so.

 

True Food Poisoning Is a Public Health Concern

If a group of you has gotten sick after a trip to a restaurant or attending a barbecue, tell the doctor, Solnick says. "That's important for public health [departments] to know," he says, so they can investigate the restaurant or food supplier.

Your doctor may try to culture the stool to figure out which organism may be to blame, Dees says. If a bacteria is found – and your case is severe – the doctor may prescribe antibiotics. But often the doctor won’t prescribe antibiotics because you’ll probably recover in several days without treatment.

For severe vomiting, your doctor may prescribe a drug called an antiemetic, which may help ease vomiting.

Is there any good news?

"Most kinds of food-borne illnesses are self-limited," Burkhart says. You can expect to recover within a few days.