Food Poisoning Medication: What Are Your Options?

By Sarah Malka, MD
Medically reviewed
October 7, 2021

Food poisoning can spoil your memories of a wonderful dinner—and ruin your week.

The common symptoms of foodborne illnesses, commonly called food poisoning, include nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, and diarrhea.

These can be unpleasant and disturb your daily life, and leave you with one question: What can you do to feel better?

That question is very, very common: There are nearly 48 million cases of foodborne illnesses in the U.S. in a given year.

The good news is that most bouts with these illnesses pass without formal medication.

Still, there are a number of medications and treatments that can help relieve symptoms and speed up the recovery process.  

In this article, I’ll discuss different types of treatments, including prescription medications, over-the-counter (OTC) treatments, and home remedies.

I will also cover what to do after food poisoning so you can get back to feeling healthy (and hungry). 

Treatment for Food Poisoning

There are more than 250 different foodborne diseases.

Most are not serious, and those with otherwise healthy immune systems will generally recover from food poisoning without formal treatment.

But depending on the severity of symptoms and type of illness, certain treatments can help.

Medications

Most foodborne infections are caused by bacteria, a virus, or a parasite.

Depending on the type of infection or illness you are experiencing, different medications and courses of treatment may be advised.         

Prescription

Your doctor might prescribe antibiotics if your foodborne illness is caused by bacteria or a parasite.

For serious cases of food poisoning as a result of E. Coli (Escherichia coli) exposure, azithromycin (Zithromax) or the rifaximin (Xifaxan) may be prescribed.

For severe traveler’s diarrhea, often contracted while overseas from eating undercooked food or drinking contaminated water, your doctor may prescribe ciprofloxacin (Cipro).

Different regimens may be recommended depending on the suspected cause of the food poisoning.

If a parasite is the cause of your symptoms, your doctor can prescribe medications that target the parasite directly. 

Certain severe symptoms can be managed with prescription medications as well.

Studies show that antiemetics can be helpful in adults to reduce vomiting, and in some cases ondansetron (Zofran) has been shown to reduce vomiting in young children.

Individuals who are at greater risk of complications, such as pregnant women, older adults, or those who are immunocompromised or have suppressed immune systems, may be treated with antibiotics, and may even receive treatment via IV in the hospital. 

Your doctor may take a blood test, stool sample, stool tests, and stool cultures, or do a physical exam to determine the correct course of medical treatment. 

Over-the-counter

Some mild to moderately severe cases of food poisoning can benefit from over-the-counter (OTC) medications to manage unpleasant symptoms.

Symptoms like diarrhea can be managed with loperamide (Imodium) or bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol). Pain relievers may also help manage symptoms.

You can follow the same protocols as you would for the stomach flu, which often presents with similar symptoms. 

Some studies suggest the use of probiotics may help with food poisoning symptoms and control future bouts of foodborne illness.

These supplements work to replenish the “good” bacteria in your digestive tract, and may help shorten the duration of symptoms, like diarrhea. 

Before taking OTC medicines, it’s best to consult your healthcare provider, as some viruses and infections can respond negatively to medication. 

One of the most common side effects of vomiting and watery diarrhea is dehydration.

Replace and replenish lost fluids with electrolyte-rich foods and drinks. It is good to drink water, but if you experience mild dehydration, fruit juices (watered down to ensure you are not drinking too much sugar), sports drinks, and broths can help replenish fluids.

You can also try oral rehydration solutions like Pedialyte or Naturalyte, or oral rehydration salts (ORS) for more severe cases. 

Natural remedies

There are a variety of tips for managing food poisoning symptoms with natural oils, spices, and herbs.

Some studies show that spices like cinnamon may have antibacterial properties, and can be used to treat infections as an alternative to antibiotics.

Certain foods like ginger and ginger tea can help calm your stomach, as well as herbal teas like peppermint, which can help with dry heaving (retching), a potential side effect of food poisoning. 

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What to Do After Food Poisoning

After you’ve experienced food poisoning, it’s important to ease back into solid foods and activity.

Bland foods that follow the “BRAT diet” may be a good way to ease your body back into eating after a bout of illness.

The BRAT diet includes bananas, rice, apples, and toast. Similar foods like soft fruits, low-fiber starches, and unseasoned proteins are also recommended.

Slowly reintroduce solid foods as you begin to feel better. 

After a bout of food poisoning, it’s also important to set up precautions so you are not susceptible to another infection.

The best ways to prevent food poisoning is to practice food safety in the kitchen, while dining out, and when traveling in a foreign country. 

  • Wash your hands: Use soap, and wash your hands thoroughly and often. Also wash between cooking different dishes.
  • Clean utensils and kitchen surfaces: Wash these when you’re cooking, and between preparing different dishes to prevent cross-contamination.
  • Keep produce and meat separate: Doing so on the cutting board and when preparing food can prevent cross-contamination.
  • Ensure food is cooked through: Thoroughly cooking food can kill germs that may cause foodborne illnesses. When preparing raw meat, use a thermometer to track the internal temperature.
  • Refrigerate leftovers within two hours: This can prevent spoilage.
  • Thaw food in the refrigerator: Don’t thaw food in the sink or on the counter; thaw it in the refrigerator, and cook immediately upon defrosting.
  • Dispose of food you’re not sure about: If you don’t know if food has been stored properly or how it was prepared, be safe and throw it away. Even if it smells and looks fine, it may not be completely safe to eat. 
  • Check expiration dates: Be sure food is not expired to avoid foodborne illness. When in doubt, throw it out!

When to See a Doctor

While most food poisoning will resolve within a number of days, some symptoms can develop into severe cases of food poisoning that, if left untreated, can cause long term damage, including kidney disease and brain damage.

If you experience any of the following symptoms, it’s important that you seek immediate medical attention:

  • Bloody diarrhea
  • Signs of dehydration, including sunken eyes, fainting, and delirium
  • Fever over 102 degrees Fahrenheit for several days
  • Frequent vomiting
  • Inability to keep liquids down

Young children and babies may present with different dehydration symptoms:

  • Dry or sticky mouth
  • Few or no tears when crying
  • Peeing less often, or diapers that aren’t as wet as normal
  • Sunken soft spot on a baby’s head
  • Crankiness
  • Dizziness

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does it take to recover from food poisoning?
Symptoms can appear within hours or days of exposure to contaminated food, or the germs that cause food poisoning. The incubation period for most bouts of food poisoning is about 1-2 days after the onset of symptoms. Depending on the type of infection, symptoms might last longer. Some parasitic infections may have symptoms that last longer, sometimes up to 6 months.
Can you take anti-nausea medication with food poisoning?
While you can take anti-nausea medication for certain food poisoning infections, it is vital you consult with your doctor first, as some anti-nausea medications can make symptoms worse.
What should you eat after food poisoning?
After food poisoning, focus on eating bland foods. Avoid spicy and overly seasoned dishes, as well as caffeine and alcohol, which can cause gastrointestinal symptoms. Try following the BRAT diet, and drink water and replenish your fluids.
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Sarah Malka, MD

Dr. Sarah Malka is a board certified emergency medicine physician with K Health. She completed her residency at Harvard Medical School.