Food Poisoning Symptoms

Food poisoning is more dangerous for some people than others.


The majority of food poisoning cases are mild and resolve on their own.

Common signs of foodborne illness are upset stomach, abdominal cramping, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and fever.

These can develop in as short of a time as 30 minutes to as long as several days or weeks after consuming contaminated food or water. Often these symptoms will resolve on their own with rest and rehydration.

However, if you or a family member develops any of the following signs of severe food poisoning, you should seek medical attention:

  • Frequent episodes of vomiting and inability to keep liquids down.
  • Bloody vomit or bloody diarrhea.
  • Diarrhea lasting longer than 2 days, or
    24 hours in an infant or child.
  • Extreme pain or severe abdominal cramping.
  • A fever of 101.5°F (38.6°C) or higher in adults,
    100.4°F (38°C) for children.
  • Dehydration — excessive thirst, dry mouth, little or no urination, lightheadedness, dizziness, or severe weakness.
  • Neurological symptoms such as mental confusion, blurry vision, muscle weakness, motor difficulties, and tingling in the arms.

Beyond these obvious symptoms, parents and family members often sense when serious illness is developing and they should trust their instincts regarding when to seek help.

Many describe lethargy, paleness, sleepiness in the hours/days leading up to diagnosis with severe foodborne infection.

Food poisoning is more dangerous for some people than others. It’s best to call a doctor for:

  • Adults 60 and older
  • Babies and children
  • People with a chronic illness or compromised immune system such as HIV, cancer, diabetes, or transplant patients
  • Pregnant women

"My daughter was thankfully sent home, but I was diagnosed with E. coli O157:H7 (the worst form of E. coli). I spent a week in the hospital with the fear of many things. The pain in your stomach is like you were beaten up as thousands of sores roam your stomach. The biggest fear for me, as all E. coli patients, is the chance it can affect your kidneys.

As a 6-month survivor of a successful kidney transplant – the thought of this was devastating.

How could this happen? It's required by law to be on the container! So how could the farm give out free samples without any signs that indicate DO NOT DRINK THIS IF YOU ARE PREGNANT OR IMMUNE-SUPPRESSED?"

After a wonderful Father’s Day trip to Victoria he returned home to become deathly ill from Salmonella, which he contracted from unpasteurized orange juice while at his Father’s Day brunch.

"Our server asked if my son would like something to drink. As an afterthought, I said, “Sure. He’ll have an orange juice.” Breakfast arrived, and as I excitedly talked of my pregnancy and how happy my husband and I were, I took sips from Tanner’s juice.

By 8:00pm the next night, Tanner had diarrhea and abdominal cramping. My husband and I were awakened at 3:00am to hear him screaming. He had thrown up all over his bed, and was trying to make it to the bathroom. He was running a fever of 103°F and his eyes were all glassy. His abdomen was distended and when I placed my hand on his tummy I could feel it gurgling.

Thus began the ten day nightmare I will never forget.

... I spent four days holding my screaming child and watching him cry, in between trips to the bathroom. It got so bad that all I could do was lay him on a towel in the bathroom and tell him to push it out while he screamed in agony. I called the triage line four times in two hours, trying to figure out what could be wrong.

I was convinced that I needed to take him to the hospital, but they kept telling me that he hadn’t been sick long enough, and that I should wait it out and if after three days he was still feverish and had diarrhea then bring him in."

Do This

(if you or your family member
has severe symptoms)

Call your doctor or go to the emergency room

Sick african woman feeling cold covered with blanket at home

“I think we are dealing with food poisoning, but our doctor thinks we can treat it at home for now …

"What do I need to do?"

  • Keep track of symptoms. When did they begin? Have they been continuous? Keep a log of your temperature if you have a fever, checking regularly as it rises or falls.
  • Check with family members, friends and other contacts to inquire if they are experiencing symptoms.
  • Reconstruct and write down what was consumed for as far back as you can.
  • Keep any suspected leftover product you may have in your fridge or freezer for possible testing. Be sure to mark it so others don’t use it. Retain grocery or restaurant receipts.
  • Protect others from contracting the pathogen through person to person contact. Keep sick family members home. Be particularly careful with hygiene when changing diapers; and wash hands carefully after using the bathroom, interacting with pets and before food preparation.
  • Replace lost fluids to prevent dehydration and electrolyte imbalance. Ice chips, small sips of water, clear soda or broth, non-caffeinated sports drinks or oral rehydration solutions are helpful if urination is less frequent or if urine is dark.

“I’d never seen him sleep like that. Deep sleep that I could hardly wake him from.

I'd never seen him that pale, or that distant. He was lighter, thinner, withdrawing. And that was even before the diarrhea, before the blood, and days before the hallucinations.

Looking back, I know now what I subconsciously felt then: that’s when he was starting to leave us.”

  • Make a note to ask your doctor if probiotics might be useful to take. There is some evidence that they can reduce the length and severity of infectious diarrhea.
  • Do not use antibiotics without a culture confirmed diagnosis and prescription by a medical specialist. Antibiotics will not help foodborne illness caused by viruses, and can actually worsen symptoms in certain kinds of bacterial food poisoning and increase the risk of severe disease like Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome, (HUS).
  • Do not give antiemetic medication (to prevent vomiting), unless instructed by your doctor.
  • Do not give Imodium A-D or Pepto-Bismol (or other anti-diarrheal medicines) especially to a child, a person with bloody diarrhea, or a fever.
  • Line up possible childcare for other children.

Pack an overnight bag for yourself in case the patient will be admitted to the hospital.

 In the overnight bag include:
1- driver's license or ID, and insurance card
2- regular medicines both patient + companion/parent need
3- contact information for your regular doctors
4- mobile phones and chargers
5- a comfort item (small blanket, washable stuffed animal)
6- a snack + personal grooming items for companion/parent
7- items to keep a child-patient busy (iPad, small game, book)

  • Investigate which hospital is best (If you live in a community with more than one) able to handle a complicated case of foodborne illness in case you need hospitalization.
    Nearly 3 out of 4 severely ill patients will need transfer to another hospital, costing crucial time, undue stress, and greater expense. Ask your doctor this question, and check with friends and family, and others you might know socially who work in the medical field.
  • If you are in a smaller community, inquire which is the best hospital in your region or state, one that has the best capacity to care for critically ill patients. Hopefully you will not need this information but it is best to be prepared and deliberate in the event that symptoms worsen.
  • Give some thought to whom you can most depend on in the event of a crisis. Are they your spouse or partner, a close friend, a relative? Make a short list of the most reliable people in your life that you can call on to help with each of the roles and obligations you juggle day to day.*
  • Most of all, trust your instincts. No one knows yourself or the patient better than you do. Most parents of children with severe foodborne illness symptoms have a foreboding sense that something is wrong, often before the patient is medically evaluated.

What Is Making You Sick?

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that each year one in six Americans are sickened with a foodborne illness, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die. Only a fraction of these cases ever get reported to a state or federal health department.

More than 80 percent of foodborne illness incidents are considered sporadic, meaning they haven’t been associated with an identified outbreak of infections.

Foodborne illness is most often caused by directly consuming food contaminated with a pathogen, an infectious agent that causes illness or disease.

Secondary infection can also be caused by coming into contact with another person who is infected (person to person transmission), such as occurs in settings like childcare facilities and nursing homes.

Pathogens can also be contracted by drinking or swimming in water contaminated by cattle runoff or swimming in pools with inadequate sanitization. Direct animal to human transmission can occur, for instance at petting zoos.

I wrote down everything I remember my daughter eating. It helped to look at my calendar and remember all the activities we had each day.

Sometimes I can remember what we ate after thinking about the events of the day

All my family needed to do to keep safe was avoid eating at that fast food chain ... Riley, who was only 16 months old, had never eaten a hamburger before and he sure wasn’t going to be eating any hamburgers now.

But in late January, 1993, after being exposed to an infected child in his day-care center, Riley developed symptoms of foodborne illness. The other child, an 18-month-old boy, had eaten a contaminated hamburger but had only a mild bout with the illness.

One day when I picked Riley up from his daycare center I saw – even though the outbreak’s focal point was 90 miles south of us – that the county health department had posted a notice at the center asking parents to watch for signs of foodborne illness in their children. I was under the impression that E. coli could only be contracted by someone eating contaminated food, so the idea of it going from person-to-person was mind-blowing to say the least.

Late that evening, Riley was not his normal, active toddler self. It started with bloody diarrhea. Early the next morning, he was in really bad shape, so I rushed him to the hospital and soon learned from Riley’s medical team that he was indeed one of 650 people known to be sickened in the E. coli outbreak across Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, and Nevada.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 1 in 6 Americans
are sickened with a foodborne illness every year.

"On Monday, I noticed that the pull-ups he wore to bed were completely dry.

It was a pretty hard fight, but when I finally got him to go on the potty such a tiny amount of urine came out! I didn’t know it was even humanly possible to urinate such a small amount.

I took him to the doctor’s office, where they would finally see him. After the usual questions, Jensen managed to pee a little in a cup for them. I remember overhearing the nurse ask if the doctor wanted to order a stool culture. She answered, “No, just the urine test is fine.”

I wish I knew then what I know now, I would have demanded that stool culture.

Jensen hadn’t had a fever once during his illness, and I was feeling like a crazy person. I could see that something was clearly wrong with my son but the doctors didn’t see it. He didn’t have the typical profuse and bloody diarrhea, so the doctor did not have reason to suspect anything like E. coli."

Incubation Periods

An incubation period is the amount of time  (hours, days, weeks) between when you’re infected and when you might begin to see symptoms.

It’s different for every pathogen.