Food Poisoning 101: When to Seek Medical Care

Food poisoning is a very common problem, both here in the United States and abroad. In the U.S., an estimated 48 million people get sick from food poisoning each year, with 128,000 hospitalizations. That means one in every seven Americans will experience a food-borne illness in a given year – and if you’ve ever had the experience yourself, you know how unpleasant it can be.

There are a number of things you can do if you suspect food poisoning in yourself or a loved one. Urgent care offers the convenience of walk-in consultations and lab facilities that can help determine whether there is a bacterial infection at work. Getting in to see your family physician may also be an option, although symptoms can be very uncomfortable, and waiting days (or even hours) for an appointment can be very difficult. It’s also worth noting that food poisoning can be severe and even life-threatening in rare cases. If symptoms are severe and you think a life may be in danger, the emergency department is the correct choice.

Also noteworthy is the fact that bacterial food poisoning can present symptoms that seem identical to gastroenteritis, which is a viral infection. This is when the intestines are inflamed by the presence of a virus, and is often caused when food is handled or cooked by someone who is ill, or when food has been undercooked.

By contrast, food poisoning is a bacterial infection entering the gastrointestinal system by eating food that contains a parasite or bacteria.

Common symptoms of both gastroenteritis and food poisoning include vomiting, fever, nausea, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps. Specific signs that the illness may be food poisoning include blood in the vomit or stool, being unable to stay hydrated, extreme cramping, a high fever, blurred vision, weakness in the muscles, and pain or tingling in the hands and feet. Again, it can be difficult to distinguish between food poisoning and gastroenteritis based on symptoms alone. Your doctor will perform specific lab tests that can detect the presence of bacteria and thus confirm a diagnosis of food poisoning.

The two main treatments for food poisoning are antibiotics (usually taken orally, but administered intravenously in some severe cases) to eradicate the food-borne bacteria from the body, as well as measures to replace lost fluids, including the ingestion of potassium, sodium and calcium.

Your doctor will also recommend simple measure to make you more comfortable during the recovery period, including bland and easily digestible foods to counteract nausea, avoiding other foods that may exacerbate symptoms, and getting plenty of rest.

What to do when you suspect food poisoning

Unless you think your life could be in immediate danger, heading for your urgent care center is the best way to see a doctor right away and be examined/tested for food poisoning. A combination of symptoms will usually appear within a few hours after eating tainted food, and the sooner you get in to see the doctor, the sooner you’ll be on the road to recovery.