Most food poisoning cases get better after a few days of rest at home
It takes time for your body to flush out the toxins so stay hydrated
Certain groups should see a doctor immediately for food poisoning treatment
One bite into my burger and I knew something was off. At first, I thought it was the chef accidentally overcooking the patty, throwing off the usual savory flavors. However, my gut feeling turned out to be right. Less than an hour later, I was having a horrible case of food poisoning.
Anyone who has dealt with food poisoning knows it’s an experience no one wants to repeat. My significant other at the time, who also got sick, felt better after a few hours — but I did not fully recover until two days later.
That’s because the time it takes for your body to purge everything depends on the amount of foodborne, illness-causing germs on the food ingested, according to Mitzi Baum, CEO of Stop Foodborne Illness, a public health organization that advocates for improvements in the food safety industry. Most food poisoning cases are mild and get better after a few days of rest at home, although there are some rare cases in which a person will need immediate medical attention.
There’s no exact way to predict how long food poisoning will last, but there are ways to make the recovery process go smoother.
Foodborne illness occurs when you consume a contaminated food or beverage. Baum explained that this can happen when microorganisms enter an environment with optimal conditions for growing and dividing.
Most illness-causing bacteria or viruses grow exponentially in food whose temperature falls into the danger zone, which ranges between 40 degrees Fahrenheit and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. This can come from eating food left out too long at room temperature, along with undercooked and raw food. Bacteria such as E. coli, Staphylococcus aureus and salmonella can double their numbers in less than 20 minutes in food left in the danger zone, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
Roughly 1 in 6 people living in the United States will experience foodborne illness, including food poisoning, annually, according to estimates by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The most common culprits are norovirus, salmonella, Clostridium perfringens, campylobacter and Staphylococcus aureus.
People often think food poisoning happens immediately, but that’s not always the case.
The time it takes for people to feel the effects of food poisoning depends on the type of bacteria, according to Nima Majlesi, director of medical toxicology at Staten Island University Hospital. Some bacteria can have an incubation period of one to two days.
Majlesi said when people feel sick pretty quickly after eating, it is likely because of Staphylococcus aureus. The bacteria create toxins that can make you sick within 30 minutes to eight hours after consumption. Staph food poisoning usually starts with stomach cramps, nausea and vomiting.
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If the food poisoning comes from staph-induced toxins, the illness should last no longer than a day. People tend to recover from food poisoning in one to two days, but cases can last up to two to four weeks after exposure, said Dr. Pratima Dibba, a gastroenterologist at the Medical Offices of Manhattan.
“It all depends. Some food poisoning cases can last 14 days, where you can just have continuous diarrhea,” Majlesi added. “Generally speaking, the more severe, the shorter the duration.”
There is no single treatment that will speed up recovery, Dibba said. It takes time for your body to flush out the toxins causing the food poisoning, usually 24 to 48 hours.
To keep yourself comfortable and avoid dehydration, Majlesi recommended staying constantly hydrated. If you are replenishing with an electrolyte solution, make sure the product is low in sugar. “Some of the electrolyte solutions have way too much sugar in them and can actually worsen diarrhea, so you want to be careful about that,” he said.
Along with water, the National Institutes of Health recommends adults replace lost fluids with broths and sports drinks. Additionally, NIH advises fruit juice with water added to make it more diluted. Children, on the other hand, should use an oral rehydration solution such as Pedialyte to ease food poisoning symptoms.
You’ll also want to steer clear of solid foods for 24 hours, especially if you are having trouble keeping food down. Majlesi said doing so gives the digestive system time to rest and recover during this period of inflammation. Adults can take over-the-counter antidiarrheal medications such as bismuth subsalicylate (brand names Kaopectate and Pepto-Bismol) or loperamide (brand name Imodium) to manage diarrhea symptoms.
After 24 hours, Majlesi recommended eating small bites of bland food with high carbohydrates. The BRAT diet — bananas, rice, applesauce, toast — is good if you are dealing with diarrhea. Saltine crackers also are usually tolerable and can help with replacing lost electrolytes.
If you are dealing with nausea and vomiting, Dibba advised not eating heavily seasoned food, dairy, gas-producing foods and fibrous foods. “A lot of people think eating salads will boost their immune system, but actually, the high-fiber food can aggravate symptoms and create bloating and abdominal discomfort,” she said.
There are some scenarios that warrant a trip to the hospital. Older adults and those with a weakened immune system should see a doctor immediately for food poisoning treatment. Additionally, Majlesi said people should visit the emergency room if their symptoms persist for a week, if they feel lightheadedness or if they experience bloody diarrhea. A health care provider can provide IV fluids and make a full evaluation to see if there is an electrolyte imbalance or other issues.
“If symptoms become very severe or you are not responding to supportive therapy, seek medical attention immediately,” Dibba said.
Jocelyn Solis-Moreira is a freelance health and science journalist based in New York.