By: Heather Williams

Your family member has the tell-tale signs of food poisoning (or foodborne illness).  Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain.  You want to do all that you can to help them while they are in this miserable state.  There is some assistance that you can provide to make them feel a little more comfortable and treat the symptoms.  Above all, however, you must be sure to break the trend and not transmit the illness to yourself or others.  Many foodborne illnesses are extremely contagious and transmitted fecal-to-oral.  This means a very small remnant on an unwashed hand that makes its way into the unsuspecting person could start the infection cycle all over again.

Common Sources of Foodborne Illness

There are many sources of foodborne illness, from parasite to bacteria to viruses.  These pathogens present illnesses that vary from minor to extremely severe.  Treatment may involve treating the symptoms for some, while other infections require more specialized treatment approaches.

The most common source of foodborne illness is a virus called Norovirus.  While you can become infected from contaminated fruits and vegetables, it is mostly transmitted though infected food handlers who have not properly washed their hands.

Salmonella is another common source of foodborne illness.  It can be found in raw or undercooked meats, as well as raw eggs and dairy products.

Clostridium perfringens is a source of foodborne illness generally caused by prepared food being left at room temperature for too long.  Dishes such as meats, gravies, and stews are more susceptible to infection.

Camplyobacter is another source of foodborne illness.  This bacteria can be found in contaminated water and unpasteurized milk, but more known for being present in raw or undercooked poultry.

Shigella is often found in ready to eat foods like fruits and vegetables as well as seafood.  It is generally spread by cleaning food with tainted water or improperly washing ready to eat foods that have been exposed to tainted water.

Listeria is less common than other foodborne illness but often hits the news when outbreaks strike.  Listeria is known to infect packaged foods such as hot dogs and lunch meats, soft cheeses, and raw fruits and vegetables.


While most people recover from most foodborne infection on their own without medical intervention, some may need to seek medical attention.  Those with a compromised immune system may experience more severe complications of the illness and require hospitalization.  For some sources of foodborne illness such as the bacteria Listeria, specific antibiotics may be needed to provide a full recovery.  Parasites often require some form of medical treatment, but those types of infection are generally more rare.  Symptoms of foodborne illness often cause dehydration.  If someone becomes severely dehydrated, organ systems may be at risk.  For these cases IV fluids may be necessary to replace lost water and electrolytes.

Treating the Symptoms

While vomiting and diarrhea or very terrible experiences, this is your body’s way of ridding yourself of the toxins to help you get better.  Sadly, this is also how the pathogen finds its next host.  There is a delicate balance between helping the sick individual and being sure not to infect yourself or others in the process.

Vomiting and diarrhea rob your body of the hydration it needs for cells to do the things they need to do.  It also depletes key electrolytes that your body requires for basic function.  Electrolytes are minerals such as sodium and potassium.  These mineral are key in muscle function such as moving your legs or controlling your heartbeat.

The best thing you can do during the first few hours of sickness is to help the sick individual avoid food.  This will probably not be a problem as food is probably the furthest thing from their mind in this state.  Keeping an empty stomach until it has somewhat settled will help prevent more vomiting in an attempt to hold onto that precious hydration.  Once the stomach is someone settled and feels that food can be introduced, offer water, broth, or better yet an electrolyte solution.  This will help to replace those lost minerals from vomiting and diarrhea.  The key is to not eat until you feel ready.  Ask the person you are caring for how they are feeling.  Start with something bland such as saltine crackers, bread, or plain rice.  This will help the stomach get used to having food again without adding too much to irritate while it is still sensitive.  This could take a day or two.  Foods to avoid for a while include: caffeine, alcohol, spicy foods, fatty foods, diary, and anything fizzy or bubbly.  These foods can increase stomach sensitivity and just make things worse.

While over the counter medications for diarrhea sound very tempting, avoid them if at all possible.  Diarrhea, while very uncomfortable, is helping your body get rid of the sickness.  Stopping yourself up will only hold the pathogen in your body longer, creating more serious complications.

When is it Time to Call a Doctor?

If the person who is sick is overall healthy, you will likely be able to help them through this by letting nature take its course.  Make the person feel as comfortable as possible and let the body do what it does to make itself better.  However, in many situations medical attention is necessary.  Contact a doctor if the sick person begins having a dry mouth or experiencing severe thirst.  Also ,if the person is not urinating very much or the urine is very dark in color.  If the sick person has a rapid heartbeat, low blood pressure, or is especially weak and/or light-headed, it is time to seek medical attention.  This is an indication of severe dehydration and should be remedied quickly.  Other key symptoms that indicated it is time to seek medical attention include: blood in vomit or feces, blurred vision, fever over 101.5, tingling in the arms, and uncontrolled vomiting where the sick person cannot keep any food or liquids down.

Prevent the Spread of Infection

To prevent the spread of infection, hygiene is very important.  Wash your hands regularly with hot soapy water for at least 30 seconds and always after caring for the sick person.  Wash hands before preparing food for yourself or others.  Wash soiled sheets or clothing on the hot cycle with plenty of detergent.  Use disinfecting solution or a 1:10 bleach dilution to clean up non-porous areas.

Report Foodborne Illness

You may think foodborne illness is not a big deal.  You got over it and you are fine, right?  Reporting foodborne illness does not mean you are trying to get a restaurant or brand in trouble.  They may not even be aware of an issue unless it is reported.  Reporting your illness helps health officials track trends and perhaps identify an outbreak early, helping to prevent others from becoming sick.  In some cases it helps health investigators identify areas the food establishment may need to improve on or trace a raw product back to a manufacturer prompting a larger scale recall.



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