10 Gut-Churning Symptoms of Food Poisoning

More than 3 million people in the United States suffer from foodborne illnesses, or food poisoning, every single year.

Unfortunately, many people brush off foodborne illness as another digestive problem or a side effect of something like the flu. However, misdiagnosing food poisoning can have dire consequences. Depending on what was ingested and how much of it was ingested, the results can be lethal.

What foods are common culprits?

Foods that often lead to food poisoning include:

  • Poisonous varieties of mushrooms
  • Shellfish
  • Sushi
  • Unwashed fruits and vegetables
  • Undercooked meats, especially poultry and pork
  • Foods that are handled and not cooked afterward like picnic foods
  • Foods that aren’t properly refrigerated

Food alone doesn’t cause illnesses. In other words, food needs to be contaminated for illness to occur.

What toxins commonly cause food poisoning?

Common substances that make people sick include:

  • Biological Pathogens
    These pathogens include bacteria and viruses that can cause different disorders. Depending on the individual, reactions can range from mild upset to death. Some of the specific viruses and bacteria that cause food poisoning include E. coli, salmonella, shigella, listeria, campylobacter, and botulism.
  • Allergens
    Some food poisoning cases are the result of an allergic reaction. The most common foods that trigger allergic reactions include shellfish, nuts, milk, wheat, soybeans, peanut butter, and eggs.
  • Toxins and Contaminants
    Foods often contain foreign substances like chemical sprays, medications, pollutants, mold, and other contaminants. The presence of toxins can be inadvertent, accidental, or deliberate.
  • Parasites
    Raw and undercooked foods can result in dangerous living organisms thriving in the food. When ingested, these parasites invade the body where they consume the body’s tissues or food in the digestive tract. These parasites include protozoa, tapeworms, and roundworms.

Who is at greater risk?

Pregnant women, elderly people, and those with compromised immune systems are more susceptible to food poisoning.

What are the symptoms of food poisoning?

Food poisoning is no joke and sometimes requires emergency medical attention. In order to receive help though, someone first has to recognize that something is wrong in the first place.

So, just what exactly are some of the most common signs of foodborne illnesses? The following might be the most obvious symptom of them all…

1. Upset stomach

Experiencing an upset stomach is the most common symptom of food poisoning.

When Does this Symptom Occur?

Tainted food can cause an upset stomach as quickly as one hour after eating. Conversely, it can generate upset as much as 10 days later.

What Causes Upset Stomach?

Upset stomach is, as the name implies, discomfort or potential pain in the stomach/abdominal area.

Often, it is directly caused by inflammation and swelling of the stomach lining, which often spreads to the intestines. If the stomach is irritated too much, it responds by vomiting to remove the source of the irritation.

Is It Food Poisoning?

There are many potential causes of stomach upset, including:

  • Overeating
  • Alcohol
  • Medicine
  • Drugs
  • Allergens

True food poisoning is caused by bacterial and viral infections that enter the body via contaminated food.

When to See a Doctor

Stomach upset that is severe or won’t go away should be checked by a doctor. After all, even if food poisoning isn’t to blame, this symptom can still indicate another just-as-severe underlying condition.

Specific symptoms paired with stomach upset that also warrant a doctor’s visit include:

  • Extreme pain
  • Extreme thirst
  • Extreme cramps
  • Excessive weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Vomiting that won’t stop

Closely related to stomach upset is the following unpleasant sensation that could indicate foodborne illness…

2. Stomach Cramps

Stomach cramps can be one of the most debilitating symptoms of food poisoning and other disorders.

When Does this Symptom Occur?

It depends on what exactly caused the illness. Viral infections, for instance, can take days before they cause notable symptoms. On the other hand, bacterial infections result in swifter reactions and symptoms—typically within 6 hours of eating contaminated food.

Food Poisoning or Something Else?

Cramps can be caused by any number of conditions, including:

  • Food poisoning
  • Contaminants
  • Parasites
  • Physical injuries
  • Kidney stones
  • Appendicitis
  • Overeating
  • Menstruation
  • Mild injuries
  • Eating on the go
  • Constant dieting

Clearly, cramping alone doesn’t necessarily indicate food poisoning. When paired with other foodborne illness symptoms though, it creates a stronger case that food poisoning is to blame for any discomfort.

Assess the Severity of Your Cramps

Remember: cramps don’t always indicate an underlying illness. Mild cramps can be almost a daily occurrence if you eat on the go, overeat, or constantly diet. Minor cramps can be caused by physical injuries.

The key to determining if food poisoning is to blame? Assessing the severity of the cramps.

  • If they are relatively minor and sporadic, it’s possible that they’ll stop soon. After all, most people recover from food poisoning on their own. However, even mild pain that doesn’t go away warrants professional medical attention.
  • Severe cramps—especially if you have other symptoms or evidence of food poisoning—can threaten your health or your life in certain cases. Sudden severe pain deserves immediate medical attention.

Reasons to Consult a Doctor

If you suspect another health issue is causing your cramps, it’s best to see a doctor for a professional diagnosis and treatment. Most cases of food contamination aren’t severe; however, if you’re experiencing persistent cramps, you should see your doctor. You should also seek medical help right away if the cramps are accompanied by:

  • Projectile vomiting
  • High fever
  • Muscle weakness
  • Fatigue

The following? It’s one of the most common symptoms of food poisoning, and for good reason…

3. Nausea

Nausea can often be caused by psychological triggers like an unappetizing smell. Gas and flatulence often indicate that the stomach is upset by a food pathogen, and nausea often precedes vomiting and other consequences of gastric distress like diarrhea.

When Does this Symptom Appear?

Viral gastroenteritis takes 24 to 48 hours after exposure to incubate. Food poisoning can take only 2 to 6 hours after eating contaminated food before symptoms appear.

Why Do We Experience Nausea?

Despite how unpleasant nausea is, it’s an important survival mechanism. You see, nausea is the body’s way of stopping us from ingesting something potentially harmful. That can be to prevent us from eating something new that could be dangerous (contaminated food) or that could irritate other problems (stomach ulcers).

Of course, sometimes nausea is simply a response to fluctuating hormones not due to a serious condition; this is the case with pregnant individuals experiencing morning sickness.

What are Some Ways to Relieve Nausea?

You can try several home remedies to relieve nausea, including:

  • Ginger or ginger ale
  • Controlling your breathing until the nausea passes
  • Aromatherapy, especially when countering offensive smells
  • Slicing a lemon
  • Relaxing your muscles

Food Poisoning or Something Else?

Causes of nausea include:

  • Motion sickness
  • Pregnancy
  • Intense pain
  • Gallbladder disease
  • Infections
  • Heartburn
  • Exposure to foul smells
  • Psychological triggers, like seeing a horrific car accident
  • Medications
  • Chemotherapy
  • Bowel obstruction
  • And many, many more

As with the previously listed symptoms, nausea alone is not enough to warrant a food poisoning diagnosis. When you also experience vomiting, chest pain, cramps, or other signs of gastric discomfort, food poisoning may be the cause.

Consider what you have recently eaten: Could it have been contaminated?

When to See a Doctor

If your nausea is accompanied by severe abdominal pain or you double over while racing to the bathroom, it’s a good indication that you should see your doctor.

Nausea might not come alone; in fact, it’s often accompanied by the following volatile symptom…

4. Vomiting

It’s quite common for vomiting to present with nausea. While this symptom is unfortunate, it also serves a vital function.

When Does this Symptom Appear?

When you vomit can help you determine why you are vomiting.

  • If you vomit after a shock or stress, that stressor is probably why you vomit.
  • Vomiting after excessive food and/or alcohol consumption is an easy answer to why you vomited.
  • If you vomit and have other symptoms of a heart attack (chest pain, sweating, etc.), you should call for help right away; heart attack may be the cause.
  • Nausea and vomiting within 1-8 hours after eating are typical symptoms of food poisoning.
  • Some food poisoning will take a little longer, though. For example, salmonella takes 24 to 48 hours to incubate.

Why Do We Vomit?

Like nausea, vomiting is a defense mechanism. Specifically, vomiting developed as a way for the body to quickly expel dangerous substances from the body. Sometimes that could be too much alcohol after drinking.

Why Does Food Poisoning Cause Vaomiting?

In the case of food poisoning, vomiting is the body’s way of trying to get rid of what’s making it sick—the contaminated food and bacteria/virus it carried.

What are common causes of vomiting?

Now, food poisoning alone doesn’t cause vomiting. In fact, vomiting can be caused by any shock to the system, which includes:

  • Physical danger
  • Changes in body chemistry
  • Excessive food and beverage consumption
  • Pregnancy
  • Stress
  • Heart attacks
  • Ulcers
  • Cancer
  • Bowel obstruction
  • Foul smells
  • Gastroparesis, a condition where the stomach empties slowly

Age Can Affect Susceptibility to Vomiting

People can vomit at any age from any reason. However, sometimes age makes people more likely to vomit from certain situations than others.

For instance, children often vomit as the result of:

  • Food poisoning
  • Motion sickness
  • Overeating
  • Milk allergies
  • Viral infections

Adults are more likely to vomit from:

  • Viral or bacterial food poisoning
  • Changes in body chemistry
  • Unfamiliar foods
  • Pregnancy
  • Medically caused gastric distress

When is Vomiting a Cause for Concern?

Many people feel better immediately after vomiting, and the food poisoning will resolve itself shortly after. However, if the vomiting continues even after the stomach is empty, you should see a doctor. After all, continued vomiting can easily lead to dehydration, which can wreak plenty of havoc on the body.

Diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting that persists for 3 days or more are strong indications of severe food poisoning; in this case, seek medical help right away.

The following symptom of food poisoning? It’s one of the most unpleasant…

5. Diarrhea

Food poisoning can lead to troubles in various parts of the body. One unfortunate side effect of foodborne illnesses is often diarrhea or other kinds of gastrointestinal distress.

What is diarrhea?

Diarrhea is a condition where people have loose, watery bowel movements. Now, a single instance of a loose stool doesn’t mean that you have diarrhea. Three loose stools in one day usually indicate a case of diarrhea, though.

With food poisoning, diarrhea might be explosive and uncontrollable, which can lead to unfortunate accidents. Anyone who notices bloody diarrhea needs to seek medical help right away.

Food Poisoning or Something Else?

An occasional bout of diarrhea is typically no cause for alarm. Frequent diarrhea, however, may indicate an underlying problem. These underlying causes can vary widely, though. Possible causes of diarrhea include:

  • Bacteria from food or water contamination
  • Viruses in food, exposure to food handlers with viruses, and poor hygiene that transfers viruses
  • Parasites in food and water
  • Digestive disorders that include Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and other diseases of the digestive tract
  • Intolerance to certain foods
  • Excessive food consumption that slows digestion
  • Certain medications

Diarrhea that lasts 3 or more days is symptomatic of a health disorder, and diarrhea that lasts for weeks is chronic diarrhea that’s usually caused by a chronic disease.

Should You See a Doctor?

If you suspect that your diarrhea is from food poisoning, you should do a little detective work. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you have a food sensitivity or other medical disorders?
  • Can you explain your bouts of diarrhea with extreme behavioral risks?
  • Have you recently eaten something questionable?

Most food poisoning symptoms clear up within a few days. If they don’t or they become severe, however, it’s time to seek medical attention.

Diarrhea isn’t fun, but it might not indicate severe foodborne illness, unlike the following…

6. Fever, Chills and Sweating

Fevers, chills, and sweating are all indicators that the body is fighting off an illness. Unfortunately, these symptoms can worsen rapidly, which indicates a severe infection.

When Do these Symptoms Appear?

Most cases of food poisoning don’t generate symptoms immediately after eating contaminated food. That means breaking out in a sweat suddenly is a signal that something’s wrong. You might then develop a fever overnight or experience alternating periods of chills and fever.

Why Do these Symptoms Occur?

Fever

Some bacteria and viruses can’t survive in hot temperatures; your body knows this fact. That’s why the body turns up the heat when it senses an infection. In other words, the body raises its own core temperature in an attempt to heat-kill the infection-causing bacteria or virus. We know this rise in heat as a fever.

Chills

Chills and sweating are typically signs of a more advanced infection and should be taken seriously. Chills and shaking are yet another way the body tries to warm itself up if a fever alone doesn’t do the trick. Specifically, chills are the result of muscle contractions and relaxations; these movements generate heat.

Sweating

While fever can kill infections, it can also be dangerous for the body to overheat for too long. That’s where sweating come in. In other words, the body sweats to temporarily cool itself off.

When is a fever a problem?

For adults, temperatures above 100° F are considered fevers. At this stage, the fever is considered low grade. If temperatures reach 103° F or above, they are considered high-grade fevers for adults. These grade ranges will be different for babies, toddlers, and children.

High-grade fevers need to be taken seriously, and they require medical attention. However, making it out to the ER might be difficult if the following symptoms emerge…

7. Weakness and Fatigue

Weakness and fatigue are common symptoms of food poisoning as well as a host of other infections.

Why is that, though?

Why Does Food Poisoning Cause Fatigue and Weakness?

There are a few reasons why you feel weaker and more tired during an infection.

For starters, the body devotes most of its resources to fighting off the infection. That means there are fewer resources to go around for other bodily functions, which can leave you feeling tired and weak.

Secondly, sleep is incredibly crucial for recovery. Once again, the body knows this fact. That’s why the body will sometimes release sleep-promoting hormones during an illness—so you are encouraged to sleep, which can help speed up the recovery process.

Food Poisoning or Something Else?

Weakness and fatigue may be the result of a host of medical conditions and physical activities. These conditions include the following:

  • Flu and other illnesses
  • Anemia
  • Overexertion
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Diabetes
  • Vitamin B-12 deficiency
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Thyroid disease
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Kidney diseases

When to Get Medical Advice and Treatment

You can see a doctor at the first sign of food poisoning, but most people don’t visit the doctor for every ache and pain. If your weakness and fatigue persist, it could be a sign of a serious underlying medical condition. So, if weakness and extreme tiredness just don’t seem to go away, it’s time to schedule an appointment with your doctor.

Recovering from an illness can be tricky when the following symptom develops, as it means your body is not getting the nutrients it needs…

8. Loss of Appetite

Loss of appetite is a condition that causes a loss of interest in food.

How Does Food Poisoning Result in a Loss of Appetite?

Food poisoning can cause a complete lack of interest in food and loss of appetite. Why, though? For some people, food simply becomes unappealing if they are too nauseous or experience vomiting.

For others, it might be the case that the body releases hormonal signals that suppress appetite. This way, you won’t introduce any other potentially dangerous foods to the system as your body fights the infection.

The Body Needs Energy

It’s important to still try to eat when you’re fighting an infection, though, because your body needs lots of energy and nutrients to effectively fight off illness. Those with upset stomach might find blander foods like crackers are more palatable.

Food Poisoning or Something Else?

There are many reasons why people lose their appetites. These reasons include:

  • Emotional reasons
  • Cancer
  • HIV/AIDS
  • Hepatitis C
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Kidney failure
  • Heart failure

If your appetite loss is accompanied by other symptoms of food poisoning or risk factors based on recent eating habits, you might be suffering from food poisoning. If these symptoms don’t go away in a few days, you should seek medical treatment no matter what you suspect the cause is.

Loss of Appetite Often Doesn’t Appear Alone

Loss of appetite often joins other symptoms that include:

  • Nausea
  • Cramps
  • Digestive distress
  • Bouts of diarrhea

Seeing Your Doctor

Anyone might lose their appetite for a few days because of physical injuries, illness, or emotional reasons. If the loss of appetite continues, it could indicate food poisoning or another chronic illness; whatever the reason, a continuation of this symptom warrants a doctor’s visit.

The following is somewhat of the opposite symptom as appetite loss, and it can be lethal in extreme cases…

9. Dehydration and Excessive Thirst

Dehydration is a common symptom of food poisoning. It’s also one of the most dangerous.

Why Does Food Poisoning Cause Dehydration?

In short, the recovery process requires lots of fluids—more than usual, in fact. However, illnesses accompanied by sweating, diarrhea, and vomiting mean lots of fluids exit the body rapidly, which can quickly lead to severe dehydration.

What are the Symptoms of Dehydration?

Symptoms of dehydration include:

  • Excessive thirst
  • Reduced urine output
  • Dizziness
  • Tingling in the arms and legs
  • Sunken eyes
  • Fatigue
  • Dark-colored urine

See Your Doctor if You’re Dehydrated

There are lots of possible causes of dehydration other than food poisoning, but dehydration is a serious symptom in all cases.

Despite the fact that you probably aren’t moving around much while fighting off an illness, the following can still develop…

10. Muscle Aches and Pains

Muscle aches and pains are common symptoms of food poisoning, even if you don’t move around much while you’re recovering.

Why Does Food Poisoning Cause Muscle Pain?

When you develop food poisoning, your body knows that there is an infection causing a problem. Your immune system therefore activates to fight off the infection. As a result, your body produces histamine to dilate blood vessels, which makes it easier for white blood cells and certain proteins to travel to where the infection is. There, they will fight the foreign invader (bacteria or virus causing the illness).

So, even if you’re resting, all of this internal activity and changes in body chemicals can cause muscular aches and pains.

When to Consult a Doctor

You can treat muscle pains easily enough at home with acetaminophen or ibuprofen. If the pain doesn’t begin to fade in a few days though, seek medical attention.

You should also see a doctor if other symptoms of blood poisoning appear. Symptoms of blood poisoning (sepsis) include:

  • Fever
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chills
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Decreased urine output
  • Low blood pressure
  • Fast heart rate
  • Sleepiness
  • Skin discoloration

What’s Next?

What should someone battling a potential case of food poisoning know most of all?…

Monitor Your Symptoms Closely

Food poisoning generates symptoms that are similar to hundreds of health issues and disorders. Most people recover on their own, and they often attribute their problems to something like the stomach flu. Whatever the cause, severe symptoms are reasons to see your doctor.

And foodborne illnesses can result in severe symptoms.

Why Does Food Poisoning Occur & How Can It Be Prevented?

Many people develop food poisoning as a result of ignorance about food safety practices. Some good food safety practices to observe include:

  • Keeping foods at the right temperature (e.g., cold cuts should be kept cold) or bacteria will grow
  • Discarding questionable foods—it’s better to be safe than sorry
  • Maintaining good personal hygiene
  • Keeping the kitchen sanitized

In short, preventing food contamination from occurring in the first place is the single best way to reduce the risk of food poisoning.

What treatment options are available?

Many people recover from food poisoning on their own with only minor discomfort. The recovery process can be sped up by replacing lost fluids and electrolytes, which help prevent dehydration.

It’s important to contact your doctor if your symptoms are persistent and/or severe. Specific treatment, over-the-counter medications, and medical intervention will vary based on the symptoms and their severity.

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