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What is Food Poisoning?

Updated at: Jan 21, 2013
Other Diseases
Written by: Dr Poonam SachdevPublished at: Aug 27, 2012
What is Food Poisoning?

Food poisoning is a medical condition caused by ingestion of food or water that contains bacteria, parasites, viruses, or toxins made by these germs. Most people with food poisoning develop symptoms within a few hours of eating the food. Symptoms

Food poisoning is a medical condition caused by ingestion of food or water that contains bacteria, parasites, viruses or toxins made by these germs. In most people food poisoning is caused because of bacteria such as Staphylococcus or E. coli.


Food poisoning may affect just one person or many people who ate the same contaminated food. This is because symptoms of food poisoning are affected by many factors including the amount eaten, age and your overall health. Most people develop food poisoning after eating in large gatherings such as picnics, school cafeterias, large social functions, or restaurants.

Some of the common germs which may cause food poisoning include:

  • campylobacter enteritis
  • cholera
  • e. coli enteritis
  • fish poisoning
  • staphylococcus aureus
  • salmonella
  • shigella.

Risk of developing food poisoning is higher:

  • in infants and elderly people
  • in people with serious medical condition, such as kidney disease or diabetes
  • in people with weakened immune system
  • in travellers from developed countries to places where sanitation is poor.

Pregnant and breastfeeding women should be particularly cautious about avoiding food poisoning.


Most people with food poisoning develop symptoms within a few hours of eating the food. Time to symptoms may be longer or shorter, depending on the cause of the food poisoning.

Common symptoms of food poisoning include:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • diarrhoea
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Fever and chills
  • Headache and body pain
  • loss of appetite
  • muscle pain and weakness (may be serious).

In most cases the symptoms subside in 2-3 days. Repeated diarrhoea and vomiting in food poisoning can cause dehydration. This is the commonest complication of food poisoning. Dehydration can cause serious health problems, such as organ damage, shock, or coma.

Diagnosis and treatment

Food poisoning is diagnosed clinically and in most cases, no tests are done. Tests may be done in people with severe symptoms or complications because of food poisoning.
Treatment of food poisoning is influenced by the cause of illness, (if it is known), and the severity of symptoms. If the symptoms are mild to moderate, they can be treated at home with supportive care such as fluids and medications for fever and vomiting. Most people with food poisoning improve with self care and treatment in a few days at home, and may not even need to visit a doctor.

Replacement of lost fluids and electrolytes (orally or through vein) is important to prevent dehydration. For severe dehydration, your doctor will admit you in a hospital to administer intravenous fluids. Fluids through a vein (intravenous hydration) provide the body with water and essential nutrients much more quickly than oral rehydration solutions.

Antibiotics are usually not needed in most cases of food poisoning. Antibiotics may be prescribed if the symptoms (diarrhoea and vomiting) are particularly severe or specific bacterial cause is known. If you are pregnant, the doctor may prescribe prompt antibiotic treatment to help keep the infection from affecting the baby. Other medications that your doctor may prescribe include painkillers and fever relieving medicines and perhaps medicine to stop vomiting.




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