Food Poisoning | What You Need to Know

Find out about food poisoning, including the different types, causes, symptoms, and treatments. Learn food safety tips to prevent foodborne illnesses.

Food Poisoning | What You Need to Know
Reviewed by Dr. David Zlotnick, Chief Medical Officer at Antidote Health

Nearly everyone has experienced the discomfort of food poisoning at some point. The CDC estimates that 48 million people get sick yearly from food-borne illnesses in the U.S. The symptoms - nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea - can sometimes be severe enough to put you out of commission for a few days. But what exactly is food poisoning, what causes it, and how can you avoid it? Keep reading to find out everything you need to know about food poisoning.

What is Food Poisoning?

Food poisoning is a general term used to describe any illness caused by eating contaminated food. The contamination can be because of bacteria, viruses, or toxins.

The two most common causes are bacterial and viral.


Over 90% of all food poisoning cases come from bacterial sources. The most common include:


Salmonella is bacteria in raw or undercooked eggs, poultry, meat, and dairy products. It is one of the most common causes of food poisoning in the United States. Symptoms usually develop 6-72 hours after eating contaminated food, including diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps.

E. coli

E. coli are bacteria found in water or food that have not been cooked properly. It's most common in raw meat and unpasteurized dairy products. It can also spread from person to person. Symptoms of E. coli food poisoning usually appear 3-4 days after exposure and include severe abdominal cramps and bloody diarrhea.

Staphylococcus aureus

Staphylococcus aureus is bacteria found on the skin and in the nose of healthy people. It can also be found in contaminated food. Symptoms of staph food poisoning usually appear 2-6 hours after eating contaminated food and include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps.


Listeria is a type of bacteria found in food that is not cooked correctly. It's most common in dairy products that have not been pasteurized but can also be found in raw meat and poultry. Symptoms of listeriosis usually appear 2-21 days after exposure and include fever, muscle aches, and gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhea and vomiting.


Botulism is a rare but severe illness caused by a toxin produced by bacteria. The toxin can be found in food that has not been canned or preserved correctly. Symptoms of botulism usually appear 18-36 hours after eating contaminated food and include blurred vision, difficulty swallowing, and paralysis.


Viruses are the second most common cause of food poisoning. The most common include:


Norovirus is a virus that causes vomiting and diarrhea. It is the most common cause of food poisoning in the United States. Norovirus is often found in contaminated water or food but can spread from person to person. Symptoms usually appear 12-48 hours after exposure and include vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps.

Hepatitis A

Hepatitis A is a virus found in contaminated food or water. It can also spread from person to person. Symptoms of hepatitis A usually appear 2-6 weeks after exposure and include fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, and jaundice.

These are just a few bacteria and viruses that can cause food poisoning. In most cases, symptoms will resolve independently within a few days. However, some cases can be more severe, especially in young children, the elderly, or people with weakened immune systems.

What are the Symptoms of Food Poisoning?

The symptoms of food poisoning vary depending on the type of bacteria or virus that has contaminated the food. However, some general symptoms are common to most types of food poisoning, including:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Body aches

Some types of food poisoning can be severe and even life-threatening. About 3,000 people die from these illnesses every year. If you experience any of these symptoms after eating contaminated food, you must see a doctor as soon as possible. If you cannot leave your home, schedule an urgent care visit online, which you can do through the Antidote Health app.

What Causes Food Poisoning?

There are many ways that food can become contaminated with bacteria or viruses. Some of the most common include:

  • Eating raw or undercooked meat, poultry, or eggs
  • Eating unpasteurized dairy products
  • Eating contaminated fruits and vegetables
  • Drinking contaminated water

It's essential to be aware of these familiar sources of contamination and take steps to avoid them.

Who is at a Higher Risk of Food Poisoning?

Certain groups of people are more likely to experience severe symptoms from food poisoning. These groups include:

  • Pregnant women
  • Young children
  • The elderly
  • People with weakened immune systems

If you are in one of these high-risk groups, it's essential to be extra careful to avoid contaminated food and water.

What are the Complications of Food Poisoning?

Most of the time, food poisoning will resolve within a few days. However, some cases can lead to more severe complications, including:

  • Dehydration
  • Bloody diarrhea
  • Kidney failure
  • Brain damage
  • Paralysis
  • Death

These complications are very rare.

How long does it take for symptoms of food poisoning to appear?

The time it takes for symptoms of food poisoning to appear (the incubation period) varies depending on the type of bacteria or virus that has contaminated the food. For example, salmonella and E. coli have an incubation period of 6-72 hours, while norovirus has an incubation period of 12-48 hours.

How is food poisoning diagnosed?

A doctor will usually be able to diagnose food poisoning based on your symptoms. However, a stool sample or blood test may sometimes be necessary to confirm the diagnosis. Another type of test, called a food challenge, may diagnose food allergies if you regularly experience symptoms after eating certain foods.

What is the treatment for food poisoning?

The treatment for food poisoning depends on the severity of your symptoms. For most people, rest and plenty of fluids are all necessary. However, some people may need to be hospitalized if they are dehydrated or have severe symptoms. According to the CDC, over 125,000 people in the U.S. are hospitalized yearly because of a foodborne illness. In rare cases, food poisoning can be life-threatening.

How can you prevent food poisoning?

There are several steps you can take to prevent food poisoning, including:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water before preparing food
  • Cook meat, poultry, and eggs thoroughly
  • Avoid cross-contamination by keeping raw meat, poultry, and eggs separate from other food
  • Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly
  • Drink only pasteurized milk and juices
  • Drink only treated or boiled water

If you follow these simple steps, you can help protect yourself and your family from food poisoning.

You can get health care without insurance. Antidote can help you get the health care you need regardless of your situation. The Antidote app allows you to connect with clinicians and get the care you need without insurance. Download the app today and save time with a telehealth appointment. We’ve also gathered some tips on preparing for your first video visit here.

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