Food Poisoning or Viral Gastroenteritis (Adult)

You have a stomach illness that is likely either food poisoning or viral gastroenteritis.

Food poisoning is illness that is passed along in food and affects the stomach and intestinal tract. It usually occurs from 1 to 24 hours after eating food that has spoiled. When it happens within a few hours of eating, it's often caused by toxins from bacteria in food that has not been cooked or refrigerated properly.

Viral gastroenteritis is an illness from a virus that also affects the stomach and intestinal tract. Many people call it the “stomach flu,” but it has nothing to do with influenza. In fact, it can happen from food poisoning, but it can also happen when germs are passed from person-to-person or contaminated surface (toothbrush, cutting board, toilet) to a person.

Either illness can cause these symptoms:

  • Belly (abdominal) pain and cramping

  • Nausea

  • Vomiting

  • Diarrhea

  • Fever and chills

  • Loss of bowel control

The symptoms of food poisoning usually last 1 to 2 days. The symptoms of viral gastroenteritis can sometimes last up to 7 days but usually end sooner.

Antibiotics are not effective for viral gastroenteritis . But they may be prescribed for food poisoning that was caused by bacteria or parasites.

Other causes of gastroenteritis include bacteria and parasites which are not discussed here.

Home care

Follow all instructions given by your healthcare provider. Rest at home for the next 24 hours, or until you feel better. Don't have any caffeine, tobacco, or alcohol. These can make diarrhea, cramping, and pain worse.

If taking medicines:

  • Over-the-counter diarrhea or nausea medicines are generally OK unless you have bleeding, fever, or severe abdominal pain.

  • You may use acetaminophen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID) such as ibuprofen or naproxen to reduce pain and fever. Don’t use these if you have chronic liver or kidney disease, or ever had a stomach ulcer or gastrointestinal bleeding. Talk with your healthcare provider first. Don't use NSAIDs if you are already taking one for another condition (such as arthritis) or are on daily aspirin therapy (such as for heart disease or after a stroke).

To prevent the spread of illness:

  • Remember that washing with soap and clean, running water is the best way to prevent the spread of infection. Wash your hands before and after caring for a sick person. Dry your hands with a single-use disposable towel.

  • Clean the toilet after each use.

  • Wash your hands or use alcohol-based hand sanitizer before eating.

  • Wash your hands or use alcohol-based hand sanitizer before and after preparing food. Keep in mind that people with diarrhea or vomiting should not prepare food for others.

  • Wash your hands or use alcohol-based hand sanitizer after using cutting boards, counter-tops, and knives (and other utensils) that have been in contact with raw foods.

  • Wash and then peel fruits and vegetables.

  • Keep uncooked meats away from cooked and ready-to-eat foods.

  • Use a food thermometer when cooking. Cook poultry to at least 165°F (74°C). Cook ground meat (beef, veal, pork, lamb) to at least 160°F (71°C). Cook fresh beef, veal, lamb, and pork to at least 145°F (63°C).

  • Don’t eat raw or undercooked eggs (poached or sunny side up), poultry, meat or unpasteurized milk and juices.

Food and drinks

The main goal while treating vomiting or diarrhea is to prevent dehydration. This is done by taking small amounts of liquids often.

  • Keep in mind that liquids are more important than food right now.

  • Drink only small amounts of liquids at a time.

  • Don’t force yourself to eat, especially if you are having cramping, vomiting, or diarrhea. Don’t eat large amounts at a time, even if you are hungry.

  • If you eat, avoid fatty, greasy, spicy, or fried foods.

  • Don’t eat dairy foods or drink milk if you have diarrhea. These can make diarrhea worse.

The first 24 hours you can try:

  • Oral rehydration solutions, available at grocery stores and pharmacies. Sports drinks are not a good choice if you are very dehydrated. They have too much sugar and not enough electrolytes.

  • Soft drinks without caffeine

  • Ginger ale

  • Water (plain or flavored)

  • Decaf tea or coffee

  • Clear broth, consommé, or bouillon

  • Gelatin, ice pops, or frozen fruit juice bars

 The second 24 hours, if you are feeling better, you can add:

  • Hot cereal, plain toast, bread, rolls, or crackers

  • Plain noodles, rice, mashed potatoes, chicken noodle soup, or rice soup

  • Unsweetened canned fruit (no pineapple)

  • Bananas

As you recover:

  • Limit fat intake to less than 15 grams per day. Don’t eat margarine, butter, oils, mayonnaise, sauces, gravies, fried foods, peanut butter, meat, poultry, or fish.

  • Limit fiber. Don’t eat raw or cooked vegetables, fresh fruits except bananas, and bran cereals.

  • Limit caffeine and chocolate.

  • Don’t use spices or seasonings except salt.

  • Resume a normal diet over time, as you feel better and your symptoms improve.

  • If the symptoms come back, go back to a simple diet or clear liquids.

Follow-up care

Follow up with your healthcare provider, or as advised. If a stool sample was taken or cultures were done, call the healthcare provider for the results as instructed.

Call 911

Call 911 if you have any of these symptoms:

  • Trouble breathing

  • Confusion

  • Extreme drowsiness or trouble walking

  • Loss of consciousness

  • Rapid heart rate

  • Chest pain

  • Stiff neck

  • Seizure

When to get medical advice

Call your healthcare provider right away if any of these occur:

  • Belly pain that gets worse

  • Constant lower right belly pain

  • Continued vomiting and inability to keep liquids down

  • Diarrhea more than 5 times a day

  • Blood in vomit or stool

  • Dark urine or no urine for 8 hours, dry mouth and tongue, tiredness, weakness, or dizziness

  • New rash

  • You don’t get better in 2 to 3 days

  • Fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher, or as advised by your provider

  • You have new symptoms of arthritis

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