Food Poisoning Treatment & Management

Updated: Jun 19, 2018
  • Author: Roberto M Gamarra, MD; Chief Editor: Praveen K Roy, MD, MSc  more...
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Medical Care

Because most cases of acute gastroenteritis are self-limited, specific treatment is not necessary. Strict personal hygiene should be practiced during the illness. Some studies have quantified that only 10% of cases require antibiotic therapy.

The main objective is adequate rehydration and electrolyte supplementation. This can be achieved with either an oral rehydration solution (ORS) or intravenous solutions (eg, isotonic sodium chloride solution, lactated Ringer solution). Note the following:

  • Oral rehydration is achieved by administering clear liquids and sodium-containing and glucose-containing solutions. A simple ORS may be composed of 1 level teaspoon of salt and 4 heaping teaspoons of sugar added to 1 liter of water.

  • The use of ORS has reduced the mortality rate associated with cholera from higher than 50% to less than 1%.

  • ORS also is indicated in other dehydrating diarrheal diseases.

  • ORS promotes cotransport of glucose, sodium, and water across the gut epithelium, a mechanism unaffected in cholera.

  • The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends a solution containing 3.5 g of sodium chloride, 2.5 g of sodium bicarbonate, 1.5 g of potassium chloride, and 20 g of glucose per liter of water.

Intravenous solutions are indicated in patients who are severely dehydrated or who have intractable vomiting.

Absorbents (eg, Kaopectate, aluminum hydroxide) help patients have more control over the timing of defecation. However, they do not alter the course of the disease or reduce fluid loss. Note the following:

  • An interval of at least 1-2 hours should elapse when using other medications with absorbents.

  • Antisecretory agents, such as bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol), may be useful. The dose is 30 mL every 30 minutes, not to exceed 8-10 doses.

  • Antiperistaltics (opiate derivatives) should not be used in patients with fever, systemic toxicity, or bloody diarrhea or in patients whose condition either shows no improvement or deteriorates.

  • Diphenoxylate with atropine (Lomotil) is available in tablets (2.5 mg of diphenoxylate) and liquid (2.5 mg of diphenoxylate/5 mL). The initial dose for adults is 2 tablets 4 times a day (ie, 20 mg/d). The dose is tapered as diarrhea improves.

  • Loperamide (Imodium) is available over the counter as 2-mg capsules and as a liquid (1 mg/5 mL). It increases the intestinal absorption of electrolytes and water and decreases intestinal motility and secretion. The dose in adults is 4 mg initially, followed by 2 mg after each diarrhea stool, not to exceed 16 mg in a 24-hour period.

If symptoms persist beyond 3-4 days, the specific etiology should be determined by performing stool cultures. If symptoms persist and the pathogen is isolated, specific treatment should be initiated.

Empiric treatment should be initiated in patients with suspected traveler's diarrhea or dysenteric or systemic symptoms. Treatment with an agent that covers Shigella and Campylobacter organisms is reasonable in patients with diarrhea (>4 stools/d) for more than 3 days and with fever, abdominal pain, vomiting, headache, or myalgias. A 5-day course of a fluoroquinolone (eg, ciprofloxacin 500 mg PO bid, norfloxacin 400 mg PO bid) is the first-line therapy. TMP/SMX (Bactrim DS 1 tab qd) is an alternative therapy, but resistant organisms are common in the tropics. Infection with either V cholerae or V parahaemolyticus can be treated either with a fluoroquinolone or with doxycycline (100 mg PO bid).

In the absence of dysentery, do not administer antibiotics until a microbiologic diagnosis is confirmed and E coli O157:H7 is ruled out.



During episodes of acute diarrhea, patients often develop an acquired disaccharidase deficiency due to washout of the brush-border enzymes. For this reason, avoiding milk, dairy products, and other lactose-containing foods is advisable.



No vaccine is available that can prevent norovirus infection. An early study conducted in a controlled setting assessed the safety, immunogenicity, and efficacy of an investigational, intranasally delivered norovirus viruslike particle (VLP) vaccine to prevent acute viral gastroenteritis. Results suggest the vaccine protects against illness and infection after exposure to the Norwalk virus and could potentially prevent infection in susceptible, high-risk populations. The vaccine has not been tested in the natural setting, however. [16]

The best way to prevent food poisoning caused by infectious agents is to practice strict personal hygiene, cook all foods adequately, avoid cross-contamination of raw and cooked foods, and keep all foods at appropriate temperatures (ie, < 40°F for refrigerated items and >140°F for hot items).

Avoiding eating wild mushrooms prevents mushroom poisoning.

Prevention of fish poisoning requires avoidance of large tropical fish (ciguatera poisoning) and compliance with seasonal or emergency quarantines of shellfish harvesting areas (shellfish poisoning).

Raw or undercooked milk, poultry, eggs, meat, and seafood are best avoided.

Local health authorities should be notified if an outbreak of food poisoning occurs. This leads to appropriate actions to prevent further spread of food poisoning.

Irradiation of food (ie, the use of ionizing radiation or ionizing energy to treat foods, either packaged or in bulk form) can eliminate food-borne pathogens. Annually, more than half a million tons of food is now irradiated worldwide. Treating raw meat and poultry with irradiation at the slaughter plant could eliminate bacteria, such as E coli O157:H7 and Salmonella and Campylobacter organisms. No evidence of adverse health effects has been found in the well-controlled clinical trials involving irradiated food.

The use of low-temperature gas plasmas in the food industry may potentially reduce the incidence of foodborne disease. [17] The gas plasmas have microbiocidal capabilities and may also aid in degrading undesirable chemical compounds that can be found on food and food-processing equipment (eg, pesticide residues, toxins, allergens). [17]

Prophylaxis for traveler's diarrhea is not recommended routinely because of the risk of adverse effects from the drugs (eg, rash, anaphylaxis, vaginal candidiasis) and the development of resistant gut flora. Possible regimens for prophylaxis include bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol, 524 mg PO qid with meals and qhs), doxycycline (100 mg PO qd; resistance documented in many areas of the world), TMP/SMX (160 mg/800 mg 1 double-strength tab qd), or norfloxacin (400 mg PO qd; fluoroquinolones should not be prescribed to children or pregnant women). No significant resistance to the fluoroquinolones has been reported in high-risk areas, and they are the most effective antibiotics in regions where susceptibilities are not known.


Long-Term Monitoring

Because most cases of food poisoning are self-limited, prolonged follow-up care is not required.

Stool cultures should be monitored in individuals working in hospitals, food establishments, and daycare centers and who are infected with E coli O157:H7 or Salmonella or Shigella organisms until they become culture-negative without antibiotics. These people should not return to work until that time.