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I Have Food Poisoning—Should I go to the Hospital?

May 8, 2024 • read

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I Have Food Poisoning—Should I go to the Hospital?

If you’re experiencing symptoms like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain and perhaps have a fever, you may have food poisoning (also known as foodborne illness).

Perhaps you know exactly where it came from (looks like your hunch about that old hot dog was right) or maybe you can’t pinpoint the exact food that may have caused it. That makes sense because you can get food poisoning beyond expired food and raw meat.  

Food poisoning occurs when a food or beverage has been contaminated with harmful bacteria, viruses, and other microbes (called pathogens) due to improper handling, cooking, or storage practices.

Here’s how a pathogen in a food or drink can make you sick: After ingesting it, the pathogen multiplies and can damage your body’s cells. To fight against it, your body ignites its inflammatory response through vomiting, diarrhea, and so on, activating its mechanisms to remove the foreign invader. 

Symptoms can occur within hours or days of ingesting the contaminated item — depending on the type of pathogen and your body’s immune response — and can last for days. In serious cases, the pathogen can damage your body’s cells and medical intervention can be crucial.

How common is food poisoning in Canada?

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), about four million Canadians contract food poisoning each year, but that number is likely higher since a foodborne illness is only recorded if you go to a hospital or take a stool test. But among that four million, around 11,600 are hospitalized and 238 die. 

More than a quarter of foodborne illnesses are caused by a known bacteria, virus or parasite, and the rest come from unknown causes. In Canada:

  • Norovirus is the leading cause of food poisoning and hospitalizations.
  • Escherichia Coli O157 (known as E. coli) is one of the most common bacteria causing severe illness.
  • Campylobacter is another common cause of food poisoning and hospitalizations.
  • Salmonella accounts for 25% of hospitalizations due to foodborne illnesses.
  • Listeria is the leading cause of deaths from foodborne illnesses.

What are common food poisoning symptoms?

As mentioned, symptoms vary depending on the pathogen you ingested. They can range from mild to severe and can last anywhere from just a few hours to over a week. The most common symptoms can include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach pain or cramps
  • Fever (sometimes)
  • Blood in your stool (sometimes)

Which food poisoning symptoms should you be concerned about?

In some cases, more severe symptoms can occur. See a healthcare provider if you experience:

  • Severe or persistent symptoms
  • Have underlying medical conditions 
  • Bloody diarrhea or vomiting blood
  • Diarrhea that lasts more than two days
  • Fever (temperature over 38°C or 100.4F)
  • Constant vomiting, with the inability to keep liquids down

If you are pregnant and feel you have been exposed to listeriosis or toxoplasmosis, you should seek emergent medical care if you are experiencing any of the following symptoms: 

  • Severe dehydration (little or no urine, dry mouth, and tongue, sunken eyes, no tears, dizzy when standing up, lightheadedness)
  • Signs of potential botulism after consuming canned products (blurred or double vision, difficulties swallowing or breathing, muscle weakness)

For infants, children, and older adults, vomiting and diarrhea can easily cause dehydration, so they should be seen by a medical professional sooner. Call your little one’s healthcare provider or get medical advice from a clinic or hospital if they’re experiencing dehydration or any of these symptoms:

 

  • Is not drinking well or refusing to drink 
  • Little or no urination (less than 4 wet diapers for infants and 3 wet diapers for older children in 24 hours)
  • No tears
  • Dry skin, mouth, and tongue
  • Faster heartbeat than usual 
  • Sunken eyes
  • Grayish skin 
  • Sunken soft spot (fontanelle) on your baby’s head
  • Has diarrhea and is less than 6 months old
  • Worsening stomach pains 
  • Vomiting blood or bile (‘green means go’ to the ER)
  • Unable to drink after 4-6 hours of vomiting
  • Weakness and dizziness
  • Stools that are black or have blood or pus
  • Pain in the stomach or rectum
  • Has diarrhea with a fever (temperature greater than 38°C or 100.4°F)
  • History of other medical problems

Who’s at a greater risk of food poisoning?

Some people are at a greater risk of getting food poisoning, which means it’s extra important to take special care in choosing, buying, preparing, and storing food for them. High-risk individuals include:

  • Pregnant women: They are 10 times more likely to get an infection from food contaminated with Listeria.
  • People aged 65 and older: Nearly half of seniors with food poisoning from Salmonella, Campylobacter, Listeria or E. coli are hospitalized.
  • Children under five: They’re three times more likely to be hospitalized due to a Salmonella infection.
  • People with a weakened immune system: People on certain medications are significantly more likely to get a Listeria infection. For example, those on dialysis are 50 times more likely.

When is it important to seek medical attention for food poisoning?

Most people experience mild illness from food poisoning, but the situation can sometimes be more serious. 

If you’re pregnant and have a fever and other flu-like symptoms, see a healthcare provider as soon as possible since some infections can cause issues with pregnancy.

For those who have a weakened immune system, are over 65, are under five, or are experiencing any of the severe symptoms listed above should also see a healthcare provider as soon as possible.

In severe food poisoning cases, people need to be hospitalized and are at risk of:

  • Brain and nerve damage
  • Meningitis
  • Kidney damage
  • Arthritis
  • Hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), which can cause kidney failure

These health problems may last weeks or months, or in some cases, never go away.

Should I seek medical help for food poisoning or wait it out?

As mentioned, if you’re experiencing any severe symptoms and/or you’re a high-risk individual, don’t wait to see a healthcare provider. If you’re experiencing mild symptoms and aren’t a high-risk individual, you may be able to treat your symptoms at home.

If you’re concerned about any mild symptoms, consider contacting one of our primary care providers. On Maple, you can quickly reach one of our physicians or nurse practitioners to check in about your symptoms or reach out to one of our registered dietitians for personalized stomach-sensitive food tips, such as how to implement the FODMAP diet to ease digestive woes until things are regular again.

What are some home remedies to soothe my symptoms?

If you’re experiencing diarrhea or vomiting, drink plenty of fluids to replenish your supply of liquids and prevent dehydration. Aside from water, your healthcare provider may also recommend drinking broths and sports drinks for electrolyte replacement.

You may want to temporarily change your diet since you may have a hard time tolerating hard-to-digest foods. Talk to a healthcare provider, such as one of our registered dietitians, about eating a bland diet of foods that are soft to digest, low in fiber, and mildly seasoned or un-seasoned. In other words, now’s not the time for greasy, fried, or fatty foods.

Reach for foods like:

  • Crackers
  • Bananas
  • Toast
  • Rice
  • Potatoes
  • Applesauce

How can I make sure I don’t get food poisoning again?

To prevent catching a foodborne illness, make sure to practice food safety:

  • Regularly wash your hands, kitchen surfaces, and utensils with warm or hot, soapy water.
  • Cook food to safe internal temperatures, and consider using a digital food thermometer when necessary.
  • Keep raw foods, like meat and eggs, separated from fruit, veggies, and cooked foods to avoid cross-contamination, and be diligent about washing utensils used with raw foods.
  • Refrigerate or freeze food and leftovers within two hours.

For more food safety tips, consider seeking more support from virtual care. You can chat with one of our registered dietitians, who can answer all your food prep, cooking, and storage tips to keep you and your family safe from foodborne illnesses. 

Information presented here is for educational purposes, and not to replace the advice from your medical professional. Virtual care is not meant for medical emergencies. If you are experiencing an emergency like chest pain or difficulties breathing, for example, please call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room.

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