The Symptoms and Causes of Food Poisoning Every Parent Should Know

Your child isn't himself today; was it something he ate? A registered nurse explains the earliest signs of food poisoning, plus tips to treat them—fast!

It doesn’t matter how minor the problem; having a sick child is scary for any parent. Food poisoning especially can leave us parents feeling helpless and unsure of ourselves. The first step is knowing what you’re dealing with. Let’s dig into the symptoms and causes of food poisoning to get our little ones feeling better sooner!

What is food poisoning?

According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 48 million people experience foodborne illness each year. It is caused by eating contaminated food. This can happen when you eat foods that should never be eaten raw or even fruits and vegetables covered in bacteria.

If you’re a parent, you know that children are not exactly shining examples of personal hygiene. This puts them at a greater risk because they are less likely to thoroughly wash their hands before eating. Children are also more likely to have more severe symptoms than healthy adults.

What are the early symptoms of food poisoning?

Food poisoning can come on quickly, so there are not many early symptoms. Common food poisoning symptoms start with vomiting and diarrhea. Your child could also experience a fever, stomach cramps and gas.

If you notice that your child is acting differently, it’s time to call the pediatrician. More serious food poisoning symptoms can include severe dehydration, confusion, bloody diarrhea and a high fever that won’t break.

It’s not always bad produce or undercooked chicken that causes illness. These surprising foods can give you food poisoning, too.

How long does it take to get food poisoning?

It depends on what type of bacteria your child was exposed to. Food poisoning can come on just hours after eating the contaminated food or up to 10 days later. Once the symptoms start, they usually run their course in 24 to 48 hours.

How do you treat food poisoning at home?

Because your child’s body needs to get rid of the bacteria, don’t try to stop the vomiting and diarrhea. The best thing to do is to focus on comfort. Help your child rest as much as possible while replacing fluids.

It could be a rough day or two, so plan to be housebound. If you’ve been meaning to start limiting your child’s screen time, this may not be the day to do it. He or she will be pretty miserable, so try offering their favorite show or book in between naps. Ryder and the paw patrol will get you through this.

Next, keep offering fluids to keep your child hydrated. (Psst! These are the best and worst hydrating drinks). Pedialyte is a better choice than sports drinks because it has more electrolytes and less sugar. (Buy Pedialyte here.)

Once your child is able to keep down liquids, try offering foods from the BRAT diet. These include bland, easy-to-digest options like bananas, rice, applesauce and toast (hence BRAT).

When your child is starting to feel a little better, try feeding them chicken noodle soup or buttered noodles for a gentle way to try food again. And when in doubt, you can always call your pediatrician with questions or concerns.

Help prevent future illness by avoiding these common kitchen mistakes.

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Carrie Madormo, RN
Now a freelance health and food writer, Carrie worked as a nurse for over a decade. When she isn't hunched over her laptop with a baby in hand, you will find her cooking her grandmother’s recipes, lacing up her running shoes or sipping coffee in the bathroom to hide from her three young children.