Food poisoning can be mild and last just a short time or can be more serious. Let's find out how to avoid it.

What Is Food Poisoning?

Food poisoning comes from eating foods that contain germs like bad bacteria or toxins. Bacteria are all around us, so mild cases of food poisoning are common. These can cause diarrhea and an upset stomach. When this happens, you might hear your parents call it a stomach bug or stomach virus.

You might think the solution is to get rid of all the bacteria. But that isn't possible and you wouldn't want to do it, even if you could. Bacteria are all around us, including in food, and sometimes they can be good for us. You can learn how to avoid bad germs in food.

What Are the Signs of Food Poisoning?

Someone who has food poisoning might have:

  • an upset stomach (called nausea, say: NAW-zee-uh)
  • stomach cramps
  • diarrhea (say: dye-uh-REE-uh), which may contain blood
  • a fever

Sometimes feeling sick from food poisoning shows up within hours of eating the bad food. At other times, someone may not feel sick until several days later. With mild cases of food poisoning, you will not feel sick for very long and will soon be feeling fine again.

It can be hard to tell if you have food poisoning or something else. You might do a little detective work and see who else gets the same sickness. Did they eat the same thing you did? If only people who ate that food got sick, food poisoning could be the problem.

Which Germs Are to Blame?

Foods from animals, raw foods, and unwashed vegetables all can contain germs that cause food poisoning. The most likely source is food from animals, like meat, poultry (such as chicken), eggs, milk, and shellfish (such as shrimp).

Some of the most common bacteria are:

  • Salmonella (say: sal-meh-NEL-uh)
  • Listeria (say: lis-TEER-ee-uh)
  • Campylobacter (say: kam-pe-low-BAK-tur)
  • E. coli (say: EE KOLE-eye)

To avoid food poisoning, people need to prepare, cook, and store foods properly.

What Will the Doctor Do?

The doctor will ask you a lot of questions about how you're feeling, when you first felt sick, what you ate in the past few days, and if anyone else you know is also sick. The doctor might also take a sample of your stool (poop) and urine (pee) to test for possible germs that might have caused food poisoning.

The treatment you'll get for food poisoning will depend on the germ that is making you sick. The doctor might give you medicine, but most of the time someone who has food poisoning doesn't need to take medicine.

It's also rare that a kid with food poisoning would need to go to the hospital. Usually, only people who get really dehydrated have to go to the hospital. Being dehydrated means your body has lost too much fluid due to diarrhea and vomiting. A dehydrated person can get fluids and medicine through an IV at the hospital. To keep from getting dehydrated, try to keep drinking liquids when you're sick.

You may also need to go to the hospital if you have blood in your poop. If you do see blood in your poop, you should definitely tell your parents about it.

How Can I Prevent Food Poisoning?

Many things can be done to prevent food poisoning. These precautions should be taken at every stage a food takes — from preparation to cooking to storing leftovers. A lot of this responsibility falls on grown-ups, but kids can help fight germs too. One of the best ways is to wash your hands if you're helping to make foods.

When should you wash? Before you start helping — so germs from your hands don't get on the food — and after so you don't pass along germs from the food to yourself or anyone else.

Other ways to keep your food safe include:

  • Wash fruits and vegetables well before eating them.
  • Only eat foods that are properly cooked. If you cut into chicken and it looks pink and raw inside, tell a grown-up.
  • Look at what you're eating and smell it too. If something looks or smells different from normal, check with an adult before eating or drinking it. Milk is a good example. If you've ever had a sip of sour milk, you know you never want to taste that again! Mold (which can be green, pink, white, or brown) is also often a sign that food has spoiled.
  • If you're going to eat leftovers, ask a grown-up for help heating them up. By heating them, you can kill bacteria that grew while it was in the fridge.
  • Check the date. Lots of packaged foods have expiration dates or "sell by" dates (which means that the food should leave store shelves by that time). Don't eat a food if today's date is after the expiration date. Use it before it expires. Ask an adult for help deciding if it's past the sell by date.
  • Cover and refrigerate food right away. Bacteria get a good chance to grow in foods that sit at room temperature. By putting food in the fridge, you're putting the chill on those bad germs!
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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor. © 1995-2021 KidsHealth®. All rights reserved. Images provided by The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Veer, Shutterstock, and