There are many different kinds of foodborne diseases that require different treatments depending on the symptoms they cause. Illnesses that are primarily diarrhea or vomiting can lead to dehydration if the person loses more body fluids and salts (electrolytes) than they take in. Replacing the lost fluids and electrolytes and keeping up with fluid intake are important. If diarrhea is severe, an oral rehydration solution should be drunk to replace the fluid losses and prevent dehydration. Sports drinks do not replace the losses correctly and should not be used for the treatment of diarrheal illness. Preparations of bismuth subsalicylate can reduce the duration and severity of simple diarrhea. If diarrhea and cramps occur without bloody stools or fever, an antidiarrheal medication may provide symptomatic relief, but these medications should be avoided if there is high fever or blood in the stools as they may make the illness worse.
When should I contact my doctor?
A health care provider should be consulted for a diarrheal illness is accompanied by:
- High fever (temperature over 101.5 F, measured orally)
- Blood in the stools
- Prolonged vomiting that prevents keeping liquids down (which can lead to dehydration)
- Signs of dehydration, including a decrease in urination, a dry mouth and throat, and feeling dizzy when standing up.
- Diarrheal illness that lasts more than 3 days
Do not be surprised if your doctor does not prescribe an antibiotic. Many diarrheal illnesses are caused by viruses and will improve in two or three days without antibiotic therapy. In fact, antibiotics have no effect on viruses, and using an antibiotic to treat a viral infection could cause more harm than good. It is often not necessary to take an antibiotic, even in the case of a mild bacterial infection. Other treatments can help the symptoms, and careful handwashing can prevent the spread of infection to other people. Overuse of antibiotics is the principal reason many bacteria are becoming resistant. Resistant bacteria are no longer killed by the antibiotic, which is why it is important to use antibiotics only when they are truly needed. Partial treatment can also cause bacteria to become resistant. If an antibiotic is prescribed, it is important to take all of the medication as prescribed, and not stop early just because the symptoms seem to be improving.