During the holiday season one gift no one wants is food poisoning. Unfortunately that item on the non-wish list makes an appearance all too often after holiday meals.

While foodborne illnesses require specific testing to be diagnosed, a list of symptoms common to most of them gives sick people a good idea whether they might have been infected.

First, though, public health officials say it may not have been the most recently eaten meal that causes food poisoning symptoms. Many of the most common foodborne illnesses have incubation periods that can be hours, days or even several weeks.

Incubation periods for common foodborne pathogens

  • Staphylococcus aureus – 1 to 8 hours, typically 2 to 4 hours
  • Campylobacter – 2 to 7 days, typically 3 to 5 days
  • E. coli O157:H7 – 1 to 10 days, typically 3 to 4 days
  • Salmonella – 6 to 72 hours, typically 18 to 36 hours
  • Shigella – 12 hours to 7 days, typically 1 to 3 days
  • Hepatitis a – 15 to 50 days, typically 25 to 30 days
  • Listeria – 3 to 70 days, typically 21 days
  • Norovirus – 24 to 72 hours, typically 36 hours

If symptoms of a foodborne illness develop – stomach cramps, vomiting, diarrhea that is often bloody – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the following: 

  • Rehydrate slowly — sips, not gulps — because drinking fluids rapidly can increase vomiting.
  • Do not self-treat with anti-diarrheal medications or anti-nausea medications unless advised to do so by a medical provider — especially if you have bloody diarrhea. Some medications can slow stool transit or suppress vomiting, which can make some kinds of food poisoning worse.
  • Do not take antibiotics — your own or anyone else’s — unless prescribed by a medical provider, because this can also make some kinds of food poisoning worse.
  • What goes in must come out — if urine output reflects how much you are drinking, and is light colored and clear, you are probably getting enough fluids. If you stop urinating for longer then a few hours, despite drinking adequate fluids, that can be a medical emergency and you should seek medical attention immediately.
  • If emergency room visits are necessary, patients should ask about specific testing to identify the pathogen that is making them ill. Food poisoning symptoms can mimic those of viruses, resulting in errors in treatment.
  • If a pathogen is identified contact the local public health department and report known food exposures for the incubation period of the known pathogen.

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