Food Poisoning in Children: What to Know

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on December 08, 2022
4 min read

As a parent, you deal with really messy diapers, vomit in the car, and all kinds of stomach bugs from daycare and school. And then, there’s food poisoning.

It may last only a few days, but it’s just as unkind to kids as it is to adults. For the most part, the best you can do is offer comfort. And a lot of popsicles.

You usually get food poisoning from eating food or drinking water tainted with bacteria, viruses, or parasites -- or the toxins that they make.

Anyone can get it, but children younger than 5 have a higher chance because their immune systems aren’t as good at fighting off germs yet. Plus, they don’t have as much stomach acid, which not only breaks down foods but can also kill germs.

Just like adults, kids pretty much have to ride out the symptoms until they’re better. But because children have smaller bodies, a lot of diarrhea and throwing up can take a toll on them more quickly, so there are some things to look out for.

Aside from keeping a clear path to the bathroom, it helps to know how you can support your child and when you need to call the doctor.

Typically, you’ll see symptoms anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 days after you eat tainted food. They vary based on the exact cause, but you can typically expect one or more of the following:

In most cases, your child will get better without treatment, but it's always a good idea to call your pediatrician if your child has symptoms of food poisoning so that you can be reassured you know what to watch out for.

If your child can’t hold fluids down without throwing up or is showing signs of dehydration, you may need to take them to the hospital to get an IV and treatment to stop the vomiting. This helps replace the fluids he’s lost and restores the balance of electrolytes.

Electrolytes are minerals, such as sodium and potassium, which help with everything from keeping your heartbeat normal to controlling how much water is in your body.

For severe food poisoning caused by certain bacteria, such as listeria, your child may get antibiotics. Cultures may be taken and sent to the lab to determine the treatment course. But for most bacteria, your child won’t get any medication unless they have a weak immune system. Your child may also get medicine for food poisoning caused by parasites, but for viruses, there’s nothing to take.

Kids can get dehydrated more quickly than adults because they’re smaller.

Your main job is to keep your child drinking plenty of fluids. Avoid giving them milk, caffeine, and bubbly or fizzy drinks. Try these instead:

  • For infants, give small amounts of whatever your baby normally takes -- breast milk or formula. You can also give your baby an electrolyte drink such as Pedialyte.
  • For older babies and children, give them water, juice, or other flavored drinks mixed with water, and popsicles. Start them on ice chips or small sips.

It’s also helpful if your child:

  • Avoids food for the first few hours until the stomach settles down
  • Eats when they feel ready, but go slow -- start with small amounts of bland, nonfatty foods such as crackers, dry cereal, toast, and rice
  • Gets plenty of rest

Also, don’t give your child any medicine to stop the diarrhea. It’s part of the body’s way of kicking the germs out. Anti-diarrhea medicine may make symptoms last even longer, and the side effects for kids can be serious.

You’ll want to call your doctor if you see these signs of dehydration:

  • Confusion
  • Dry or sticky mouth
  • Extreme thirst
  • Eyes that look sunken in
  • Little or no tears when crying
  • No energy
  • Not peeing much or at all
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Soft spot on an infant’s head looks sunken in
  • Weakness, dizziness, or feeling lightheaded

Typically, you can care for your child at home, but it’s good to check in with your doctor for:

  • Children younger than 5 years
  • Children with ongoing health conditions, such as kidney problems

Call your doctor if your child hasn’t improved after 24 hours or they have any of these symptoms:

  • Bloody throw-up or poop
  • Blurry vision
  • Diarrhea and a fever over 101 F
  • Intense belly cramps that don’t go away after pooping
  • Muscle weakness
  • Problems breathing
  • Throwing up for more than 12 hours
  • Tingling in the arms

Most kids get fully back to normal within 1 to 5 days, but check with your doctor before sending your child back to school or daycare. If your child still has diarrhea, they could still be contagious.

Even when you get your doctor’s go-ahead, keep in mind that your child may still have some diarrhea or loose poop.

For babies, you’ll want to make sure their diapers can handle it, and for older kids, they may need to be able to get to the bathroom in a hurry.