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Signs and symptoms of food poisoning

10 signs and symptoms to watch out for

It can be difficult to identify food poisoning due to the variety in symptoms and their severity. Here are 10 common signs of food poisoning to look out for.

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10 signs and symptoms of food poisoning
Last updated on April 7, 2024, and last reviewed by an expert on February 7, 2024.

Food poisoning happens when you consume food or drinks contaminated with toxins or harmful microorganisms, leading to symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and more.

10 signs and symptoms of food poisoning

It’s a very common issue, with around 9.4 million Americans affected each year.

The causes of food poisoning include eating foods contaminated with bacteria or consuming foods that naturally contain poisonous toxins, such as certain types of mushrooms.

The symptoms and their severity can vary widely. Sometimes, it may take hours or even days for symptoms to show up, which can make it tricky to pinpoint exactly what food caused the issue.

Foods that are particularly risky include undercooked meats and poultry, eggs, unpasteurized dairy products, shellfish, and fruits and vegetables that haven’t been washed properly.

This article outlines 10 common symptoms of food poisoning and offers advice on what to do if you suspect you’re affected.

1. Abdominal pain and cramps

Experiencing pain in the middle part of your body is a typical sign of food poisoning. This discomfort is due to harmful substances irritating the lining of your stomach, causing cramps. These cramps become more intense as your muscles attempt to eliminate the harmful agents.

It’s important to remember that abdominal pain and cramps can stem from causes other than food poisoning, and not every instance of food poisoning will lead to these symptoms.

Summary: Abdominal pain and cramps can signal that your stomach and intestines are inflamed. They can also happen as your body works to get rid of harmful organisms.

2. Diarrhea

Diarrhea, characterized by watery and loose stools happening three or more times within 24 hours, is often a result of food poisoning. It typically comes with a pressing need to use the bathroom and may include bloating or abdominal cramps.

This condition arises as inflammation reduces your intestines’ ability to absorb the water and fluids produced during digestion, which can lead to dehydration. To counteract this, it’s crucial to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids like water or broth and ensuring your urine is light yellow to clear.

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Summary: Diarrhea involves having loose, watery stools multiple times in a day. Staying hydrated is essential to counter the risk of dehydration it brings.

3. Headaches

Headaches are a common ailment and can be brought on by stress, alcohol consumption, dehydration, and tiredness.

Food poisoning can also cause headaches due to the fatigue and dehydration it can induce. The risk of headaches increases if you’re experiencing vomiting and diarrhea, which further dehydrates your body.

Summary: Headaches can be a side effect of food poisoning, particularly if it leads to dehydration.

4. Vomiting

Vomiting is your body’s way of getting rid of harmful substances, including bacteria or toxins that can cause food poisoning.

Some people may experience intense vomiting quickly, while others might vomit more sporadically over a few days. If you’re unable to keep down liquids, it’s crucial to seek medical attention to prevent dehydration.

Summary: Vomiting is common in cases of food poisoning as a way for the body to eject harmful ingested organisms.

5. Generally feeling sick

Feeling unwell with symptoms like a loss of appetite and fatigue is common during food poisoning, as your body mobilizes its defense system against the infection.

Chemical signals, known as cytokines, play a key role in this process by managing the immune response and signaling the brain to exhibit symptoms of being sick.

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This leads to “sickness behavior,” where you might want to isolate, rest, and stop eating, indicating that your body is focusing its resources on combating the infection.

Summary: Cytokines, critical for managing your immune response, also lead to symptoms like loss of appetite, marking your body’s focus on fighting off infection.

6. Fever

Fever is your body’s temperature increasing beyond the normal range of 97.6–99.6°F (36–37°C), acting as a defense mechanism against infections.

Pyrogens, either released by your immune system or the infectious agents, fool your brain into raising the body’s temperature. This elevation in temperature enhances the efficiency of white blood cells in fighting off the infection.

Summary: Fever is a defense strategy against infection, elevating your body temperature to bolster the immune system’s effectiveness.

7. Chills

Chills are characterized by your body’s attempt to increase its temperature through shivering, which involves rapid muscle contractions to generate heat. This often happens alongside a fever, induced by pyrogens that trick your body into believing it’s colder than it actually is.

Chills and fever are frequent symptoms of various illnesses, including food poisoning.

Summary: Accompanying a fever, chills occur as your body tries to warm up, mistaken by pyrogens for being too cold, a common response in food poisoning.

8. Weakness and fatigue

Feeling weak or excessively tired is a common symptom after food poisoning, largely because of cytokines, which are chemical messengers your body releases during an illness.

These feelings are part of what’s known as sickness behavior, which encourages you to rest and allow your body to heal. If you’re feeling this way, it’s crucial to listen to your body and take the time to rest.

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Summary: Experiencing weakness and fatigue is typical with food poisoning, as your body’s response to illness involves releasing cytokines.

9. Nausea

Nausea, the uneasy sensation that you might vomit soon, can be triggered by various factors, including food poisoning, migraines, or motion sickness. It acts as an early indicator that you might have ingested something harmful.

When feeling nauseous, consider trying natural remedies to alleviate your symptoms.

Summary: Nausea, a precursor to vomiting, signals potential food poisoning and serves as an alert to possibly having eaten something harmful.

10. Muscle aches

Muscle pain can accompany infections like food poisoning, as your body produces histamine to expand your blood vessels, making it easier for white blood cells to combat the infection.

The spread of cytokines and other immune response substances throughout your body can activate pain receptors, leading to general aches.

Summary: Muscle aches during food poisoning result from your immune system’s inflammatory response to the infection.


To reduce the risk of food poisoning, maintaining good kitchen hygiene and washing your hands are essential steps.

While food poisoning is usually not severe and tends to resolve by itself, it’s important to rest, stay hydrated, and consult a doctor if your symptoms persist for several days.

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