Know the feeling all too well? Same here, and it’s normal to get food poisoning from time to time. But food poisoning isn’t chronic, and is usually time limited, so if you’re coming down with what feels like food poisoning a little too frequently, it’s important to consult with a doctor about your symptoms. While the infection could be of food-borne circumstances (think: undercooked meat), it could also be a parasite or from a variety of different agents, says Jeffrey Crespin, M.D., a clinical assistant professor at New York University.
While symptoms of an intestinal infection, such as diarrhea, cramps, nausea, vomiting and sometimes fever, are often similar regardless of whether they came from food-borne illness or not, certain symptomatic clues can help your doctor figure out which infection you have and how to treat it and prevent it from occurring again.
Here, the three most frequent types of intestinal infections, how to tell when if it’s really just food poisoning, and what you need to know to make the stomach pains stop:
Norovirus, a type of virus that affects the lining of the small intestines, preventing its ability to absorb fluids and nutrients, is the most common type of food poisoning, says Morris Naus, M.D., a South Florida-based gastroenterologist. Infected food workers touching ready-to-eat foods (like fruits and vegetables) with their bare hands are frequently the source of the outbreaks, but you can pick up the norovirus from person to person without the involvement of food ingestion. Norovirus is highly contagious, especially during the winter months, and is responsible for 19 to 21 million illnesses per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It takes about 12 to 48 hours for symptoms to develop, and they will typically last for one to three days. A distinguishing symptom of viral gastroenteritis is very watery diarrhea, but the most important symptom to look out for is dehydration, explains Naus. “If you’re unable to maintain your fluids, and if you’re lightheaded or dizzy, that’s when you need to see your doctor, or go to a hospital, to get some intravenous fluids.” (Kick-start your new, healthy routine with Women’s Health’s 12-Week Total-Body Transformation!)
Prevent it: Wash your hands! Make sure to keep soap in your bathrooms and by the kitchen sink, and that anyone who is preparing and serving food is keeping up their hand hygiene throughout the meal-prep process. Throwing a small hand sanitizer in your purse couldn’t hurt, either.
Treat it: More often than not, viruses require rest and can be managed at home, while bacteria and parasites are treated with antibiotics. When taken unnecessarily, not only do antibiotics have side effects (that you just don’t want to deal with on top of a virus!), but they cost extra money and can make you more likely to get a resistant infection in the future. If you do see your doctor and think you might have norovirus, ask themto specifically test for the virus. It is not usually run on routine stool tests, Crespin adds.
Most bacterial infections are food-borne and are typically caused by the bacteria Campylobacter, Salmonella, Shigella, and E. coli. These bacteria attach to the lining of the intestines and produce a toxin that causes extreme fluid output along with an inability to absorb fluids, explains Naus. They’re most commonly acquired by ingesting undercooked poultry, beef, eggs, or milk products. Infection can also occur after close contact with animals or water that’s contaminated with bacteria.
Symptoms usually present within a day of exposure. While it can be very hard to tell the difference between bacterial or viral gastroenteritis, a symptom frequently associated with bacteria is bloody diarrhea (usually red in color with some clots), says Crespin. This is because bacteria inflames the colon in addition to the intestines, Naus adds.
Prevent it: There’s no reason to shy away from your favorite foods, but taking preventative measures to avoid contamination is key to enjoying your meal and keeping it down. Adequate hand hygiene and sanitization of kitchen utensils is important to prevent the spread of any illness, and make sure food is well cooked. Get a meat thermometer and make sure all cuts reach a safe internal temperature. You should store all meat below 34 degrees, Crespin advises.
Treat it: It’s time to seek medical help if you have blood in your stool, a high fever persists past two days, or if pain is extreme. In most bacterial gastroenteritis cases, your doctor will recommend a stool test to determine which organism is at play (and which antibiotic will beat it).
Intestinal parasites can often mimic signs of food poisoning, but they are in a league of their own. Giardia is one of the most common intestinal parasites in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Giardia is a parasite that attaches to the small intestines and decreases the ability to absorb normal fluids, therefore causing diarrheal illness, explains Naus. The parasite lives in water (usually swimming pools or lakes) and is transmitted through swallowing or drinking contaminated water.
Another common parasite to be aware of is Cryptosporidium. Like Giardia, it is commonly spread through ingesting a contaminated water source, though both parasites can also be spread through contact with affected animal species or daycare centers, and both are most common during the summer months from May to October.
Parasitic symptoms present seven to 10 days after exposure, and can last for one to three months, much longer than viral or bacterial symptoms, says Naus. An important symptom to look out for compared to viruses or bacteria is greasy stool (stool containing yellowish oil droplets that will float to the top of the toilet), which is due to the infection causing decreased fat absorption, adds Crespin.
Prevent it: The simplest way is not to swallow anything that isn’t clean, clean, clean. Avoid ingesting any water that’s in a lake or hot tub, and take steps to make sure that, if you have a pool or hot tub, you treat them properly with chlorine and other agents as recommended by a professional.
Treat it: If you do in fact have a parasite (usually determined through examining a stool sample), you’ll most likely receive an antibiotic to kill the bug, explains Naus.