What medicine is there to treat food poisoning?

Dear Alice,

What medicine should we take for food poisoning?

Dear Reader,

Food poisoning can be an uncomfortable and difficult experience. It’s caused by consuming food that’s contaminated with bacteria, toxins, parasites, and other harmful chemicals and organisms. Symptoms can include vomiting, diarrhea, and cramping. Mild food poisoning can be cared for at home with rest and plenty of fluids while the illness runs its course, usually about a few days. Those with diarrhea may also find that over-the-counter anti-diarrheal medicine are helpful (as long as the stool isn't bloody). However, some food poisoning can be severe or life-threatening and requires medical attention.

In many cases, the body’s natural response of ridding itself of the virus or bacteria is usually effective. When dealing with food poisoning, rest and drinking plenty of fluids can be the first line of treatment. Taking small, frequent sips of clear liquids helps prevent dehydration. It might also be helpful to drink oral rehydration solutions containing electrolytes to replenish what the body loses through vomiting and diarrhea.

Though most individuals are able to treat themselves if they have food poisoning, it's a good idea for individuals who are at high risk for dehydration or have underdeveloped or weakened immune systems (babies, young children, older adults, and people with severe or chronic health conditions), to consult with their health care provider. In some cases, they may prescribe antibiotics to help relieve certain kinds of food poisoning. 

If you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms along with food poisoning it’s also worth discussing with a health care provider:

  • Fever of over 101.5 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Severe diarrhea for more than three days
  • Vomiting and not being able to keep anything down
  • Serious abdominal cramping
  • Bloody stool
  • Symptoms of dehydration: dry mouth or sticky saliva, does not urinate or dark urine, dizziness, or lightheadedness
  • Confusion
  • Muscle weakness
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Double vision

Some forms of food poisoning can start within a few hours after exposure while others may take up to a week, depending on the bacteria or virus that is the cause. Food can become contaminated at any point in the production process, from growth to preparation, so being mindful about where food comes from, how it's processed, stored, and prepared can help to reduce instances of food poisoning. All that said, mild food poisoning doesn’t require medication, but if you do experience more severe symptoms, seeking immediate medical attention can help ensure you receive appropriate treatment.

Last updated May 13, 2022
Originally published Dec 07, 2001

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