When To Get Help For Your Disastrous Case Of Food Poisoning

Photographed by Megan Madden.
Okay, maybe that gas station spicy tuna roll wasn't the best idea — but what are the odds it would actually make you sick? Well, now that you've had to stay home from work and gotten really, really cozy with the tile on your bathroom floor, you're pretty much rethinking all the sketchy food decisions you've ever made. Another question you may be pondering: At what point do you bring in professional medical help for a bad bout of food poisoning?
As the Mayo Clinic explains, food poisoning (a.k.a. foodborne illness) is caused by eating food that's been contaminated by viruses, bacteria, parasites, or other pathogens. That sounds scary, but there's a wide range of organisms that cause food poisoning — and a wide range of resulting sicknesses, not all of them severe. In fact, in the vast majority of cases, your illness will be pretty mild.
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Still, that doesn't mean it's not unpleasant. Even mild episodes can bring you the gifts of vomiting, diarrhea, a fever, and just feeling all-around crampy and gross. Those symptoms may be gone after a few hours or stick around for a couple of days. Either way, you should definitely aim to replace the fluids and electrolytes you've lost, so drink plenty of water (small sips at first to make sure you can keep it down), and feel free to mix in some clear liquids such as broth, soda, or sports drinks. And, when you feel up to it, snack on something easy to digest (bananas and toast, anyone?). If you're not sure about the best way to handle your sickness, though, it's worth a call to your doctor.
But there are other, more severe cases that definitely require a doctor and possibly even a trip to the ER. If your symptoms aren't going away after a few days, you may need antibiotics. Other serious symptoms — a fever over 101.5 degrees Fahrenheit, signs of severe dehydration (e.g. dizziness), intense abdominal pain — are signals that you may be dealing with a particularly stubborn foodborne illness or something else altogether. In those cases, Medline says you may need IV fluids or more extensive testing to figure out what's going on, so get yourself some medical attention ASAP.
However, let's reiterate that the vast majority of cases are mild, especially in young, otherwise healthy folks. You can also reduce your risk for future food poisoning by taking note of product recalls and current outbreaks as well as using some old-fashioned common sense when cooking and ordering your meals.
One tricky thing with food poisoning, as the Mayo Clinic says, is that your symptoms can start within just a few hours of eating the offending meal or they might take days or even weeks to start making you sick. Which means it's actually pretty hard to figure out what food made you ill in the first place — it's not necessarily the most recent thing you ate.
Even so, not the worst idea to skip the questionable sushi next time.
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