How is food poisoning treated?
For the most part, as nasty as it can be, a round of food poisoning typically resolves on its own within about 3 to 5 days without the need for medical intervention. Vomiting and diarrhoea are the body’s way of ridding itself of offending organisms and restoring normal function.
The most important thing for anyone experiencing poisoning is to remain hydrated (whether by drinking water and electrolytes which maintain fluid balance in the body or having these administered via an IV drip) – this helps to replenish the body and resolve most symptoms of food poisoning, as well as curb risk for side-effects and complications.
During the initial 24 to 48 hours, a person experiencing food poisoning can help themselves heal by taking the following steps:
- Cease eating (meals) solid foods and drinking for the first few hours (up to 6 hours), allowing the stomach to settle.
- Take in small sips of water or suck on ice chips. Clear sodas or broths and sports drinks can also help to rehydrate the body. Some find that decaffeinated teas, such as chamomile, dandelion or peppermint (sipped slowly) can help to settle the stomach too. Tip: Once normal urination patterns resume and urine is clear, the body is usually sufficiently rehydrated.
- Once the stomach has settled a little, gradually introducing bland, easy-to-digest, low-fat foods is recommended. Dry toast or soda crackers, gelatin, cereal, oatmeal, bland potatoes, boiled / steamed vegetables, chicken broth, ginger ale, rice or bananas are easy on the stomach. If nausea returns, it is best to stop trying to eat for a short time, or until queasiness passes. Instead, resume the intake of water. It is wise to avoid all dairy products (milk and cheeses etc.), caffeine, fatty foods, highly seasoned foods, spicy foods, fried foods, alcohol, fruit juices and sodas (sugar content) or other sugary foodstuffs, and nicotine (smoking), as these will all irritate the digestive tract and interfere with healing.
- Ease fatigue and body weakness with much needed rest while recovering.
Top tip: Stomach acid that is purged during vomiting is damaging to the enamel on the teeth. It is a good idea to brush one’s teeth after each bout of vomiting to help protect them.
What is the BRAT diet and can it help?
The BRAT diet may be helpful when suffering stomach troubles, such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea, due to food poisoning or any other digestive condition. BRAT is an acronym for bananas, rice, applesauce and toast.
Bland foods, like these, that are not high in seasoning or fat, are easier on the stomach and can be better digested, helping to restore normal function and strengthen the body once again. Symptoms like nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea can better handle such foods when feeling under the weather.
Although the diet specifies foods that are helpful to eat in the name of the diet, any other bland foods that are low in fibre and help to firm up stools (like binding agents), can also be consumed while recovering from a stomach illness. Crackers, oatmeal, cream of wheat (cooked cereal), boiled potatoes, apple juice, flat sodas, weak tea (or ginger tea) and broths can all be included in a BRAT diet during recovery.
Dairy products, fried, greasy, spicy and fatty foods, as well as salmon, sardines, steak or pork, raw vegetables (like carrots, cauliflower and broccoli), tomatoes, oranges, pineapple, grapefruit, and alcoholic or caffeinated beverages, should all be avoided while recovering.
To start the diet, it is best to stop eating until diarrhoea and vomiting has finished. Resting the stomach is important before recovery measures can begin. Before introducing solids again, it is best to begin sipping water or sports drinks or sucking on ice cubes to rehydrate the body. Within 24-hours, clear liquids sipped every 10-minutes or so will help to replenish, hydrate and ease the stomach back into better health. Water, vegetable or chicken broth and apple juice are good options to following the reintroduction of gradual fluids (sipped water and ice chips or cubes). Should nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea return, it is best to stop for a few hours until the stomach feels stable enough to try again.
The BRAT diet can commence after 24-hours of falling ill, and is only meant to be used for a short time. The diet is not a nutritious one and should thus, not be followed for longer than is necessary for the stomach to recover. Food poisoning should have resolved by the second or third day, at which time normal food consumption should be able to be resumed. Once the stomach is stronger, a person should be able to start introducing foods like soft-cooked eggs, cooked fruits and vegetables, and white meat (like turkey or chicken) back into their daily diet.
The key is to take care not to introduce too much variety too soon. What a person ‘can stomach’ during this recovery period depends on the individual. A person should listen to their body’s cues and eat what helps them to recover, without causing another round of digestive problems.
While the BRAT diet may be helpful or even recommended by a doctor, many do not feel it entirely beneficial for infants and young children. Such restrictive foods may not work well for such little bodies that require certain levels of protein, micronutrients and macronutrients for healing. That said, some of the recommended foods, like bananas, for instance, are still beneficial for little ones. Pectin, a starch in bananas is healthy for the digestive tract and also assists with the absorption of water and electrolytes. This benefits both the very young and adults alike. To avoid malnutrition in the case of babies and young children, it is best to follow the advice of a treating doctor. Certain foods that the BRAT diet encourages may be beneficial for a very short term and help to promote healing from the effects of diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting. As soon as a child (including those being nursed or breastfed or given full-strength formula) is well enough to stomach a more varied diet), appropriate foods should be introduced. A doctor can make the most appropriate recommendations based on the nature of food poisoning affecting a little one.
The BRAT diet is not entirely supported by scientific research, but the basic principle followed over a few days (as a guide) is not likely to cause a great deal of harm to anyone recovering from stomach-related illness. Bananas and whole grains in particular, are regarded as good food sources that can help the body to recover a little faster, so that a more balanced and nutritious diet can be resumed as soon as possible thereafter.
If diarrhoea and vomiting persist, causing dehydration, a doctor may request hospital treatment (in order to facilitate rehydration) by administering fluids containing water and salts intravenously (IV in a vein in the arm).
Bacterial food poisoning may be treated with a course of antibiotics, and especially if symptoms are severe. Bacterial food poisoning is likely to have been determined during the initial consultation and diagnosed via testing procedures (such as a stool culture). Accurate diagnosis is important so that appropriate antibiotics can be used for effective treatment. For instance, listeria infections require treatment with intravenously administered antibiotics (normally given in hospital), allowing for quicker absorption. Prompt treatment, especially for those who fall into high risk categories, such as pregnant women, children and elderly, can ensure that complications do not occur. Parasitic poisoning may be treated with anti-parasitic medications.
Over-the-counter treatments for diarrhoea relief (if stool is not bloody) or to help ease nausea, are available and reasonably safe to use, but are not always helpful for bacterial or parasitic causes of food poisoning. Before taking any such medications, like Imodium or Peto-Bismol, it is best to consult a doctor. In mild to moderate food poisoning instances, the body’s natural expulsion mechanisms are sufficient enough to help rid it of the offending toxin. Such medications can sometimes mask the severity of food poisoning, prolong symptoms or cause additional discomforts. A doctor will also likely discourage the use of these medications for babies and young children, as well as any adult that has signs of fever or blood in their stool.
Good bacteria, which can be obtained from probiotics and prebiotics can also help to promote healing. A doctor may recommend good sources in either capsule (tablet) or liquid forms. Those that he or she may recommend include lactobacillus GG or Saccharomyces boulardii. In addition, a doctor may recommend sources of good bacteria in fermented foodstuffs, like natural yoghurt or even kombucha, Jerusalem artichoke, legumes, chicory root, berries, oats, onions, garlic and bananas.
Replenishing the body with good bacteria in the weeks following illness can help it to naturally regenerate itself with a supplemental form of the healthy variation that may have been lost while ill with food poisoning. This will then naturally help improve the digestive system function as a whole, as well as restore the immune system into its most effective state.