What Are the Symptoms of Food Poisoning in Children?

Fever and cramps are telltale signs

Sick young woman leaning on bathroom wall by toilet
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Food poisoning is extremely common in both children and adults, but many parents have difficulty discerning when kids have eaten contaminated food or when they have symptoms of a stomach virus. Given that experts estimate that about 76 million cases of food poisoning occur each year in the United States, it certainly benefits parents to know the symptoms of the illness in children.

Food Poisoning Symptoms

Common symptoms of food poisoning include:

Of course, other things besides food poisoning can cause these same symptoms, making a diagnosis of food poisoning difficult. For example, children can develop diarrhea and vomiting with a viral infection, such as rotavirus, or after getting a Salmonella infection from playing with a pet turtle.

You should suspect food poisoning if other people get sick at about the same time and after eating the same foods. Since many infections that cause diarrhea are contagious, just because everyone in the house has diarrhea and vomiting doesn't mean that they all have food poisoning. It is more likely, though, if they all developed symptoms on the same night after, say, a family picnic.

Classic Food Poisoning Symptoms

It is important to keep in mind that there are many different bacteria, viruses and toxins that can cause food poisoning.

Although most cause diarrhea and vomiting, they do have some characteristic symptoms that can help you identify what may have caused your sickness.

Staphylococcus aureus food poisoning may happen when your child eats food contaminated with an enterotoxin (typically foods left at room temperature for too long), which quickly causes symptoms (within two to seven hours), including vomiting, watery diarrhea and either no fever or a low-grade fever.

Fortunately, the symptoms usually go away as quickly as they came on, within 12 to 24 hours.

Salmonella 

Salmonella food poisoning is fairly well known. Symptoms of salmonella food poisoning usually begin about six to 72 hours after exposure to this bacteria and include watery diarrhea, fever, cramping abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting. The symptoms typically last four to seven days and usually go away without treatment.

E. coli O157

E. coli O157 are a specific type of E. coli bacteria that can cause food poisoning with severe stomach cramps, bloody diarrhea and sometimes a low-grade fever. Although most children with E. coli O157 recover without treatment in five to seven days, some develop a life-threatening condition called "hemolytic uremic syndrome" (HUS).

Children can develop E. coli O157 infections about one to 10 days after eating contaminated meat products that are undercooked, especially hamburgers. Drinking raw milk, contaminated water and unpasteurized juice and having contact with farm animals are other risk factors.

Shigella

Shigella is another bacteria that can cause bloody diarrhea, in addition to stomach cramps and high fever. Children can develop a shigella infection (Shigellosis) about one or two days after eating food that has been contaminated with the shigella bacteria, such as potato salad, milk, chicken and raw vegetables. Unlike most other causes of food poisoning, Shigellosis can be treated with antibiotics, although most of these infections do go away on their own in five to seven days.

Campylobacter

Campylobacter food poisoning is often associated with eating undercooked chicken and drinking raw milk, with symptoms developing about two to five days after exposure. Symptoms can include watery diarrhea, fever, abdominal cramps, nausea, muscle aches and headaches. Although symptoms usually go away in seven to 10 days on their own, treatment with the antibiotic erythromycin reduces how long people are contagious.

Clostridium Perfringens

Clostridium perfringens food poisoning is another bacteria that produces a toxin in food. Symptoms begin eight to 22 hours after eating contaminated food, especially meats and gravy that are not prepared or stored properly and include watery diarrhea and intense abdominal cramps, which can linger for about 24 hours.

Clostridium Botulinum

Clostridium botulinum food poisoning or botulism, which produces spores and toxins that can contaminate vegetables and other foods that are preserved and canned at home, honey (which is why infants aren't supposed to eat honey) and some other foods. In addition to nausea, vomiting and abdominal cramps, children with botulism can have neurological symptoms, such as double vision, slurred speech, trouble swallowing and muscle weakness.

Infants may have weakness, constipation and poor feeding. In both older children and infants, the muscle weakness can even affect their ability to breathe.

Hepatitis A

Hepatitis A is a viral cause of food poisoning. Unlike most of the other causes of food poisoning, it is the only one for which there is a vaccine (kids get it starting at age 12 months) that can prevent it. Children can develop symptoms of Hepatitis A 10 to 50 days after eating contaminated water, vegetables, shellfish and foods contaminated by restaurant workers.

Bacillus Cereus 

Bacillus cereus food poisoning leads to watery diarrhea and abdominal cramps about six to 15 hours after eating contaminated food, including meats, fish, vegetables and milk. Contaminated rice typically causes nausea and vomiting, but not diarrhea. With either type of symptoms, they usually go away in about 24 hours without treatment.

Norwalk Virus

Norwalk virus is another virus that can cause food poisoning and is often associated with cruise ships. Children can develop Norwalk virus food poisoning after drinking contaminated water or eating contaminated food, including shellfish, salad ingredients, raw clams, raw oysters and other foods contaminated by sick restaurant workers.

In addition to looking for classic symptoms of food poisoning, your pediatrician may be able to diagnose these types of food poisoning with specific tests. They typically include stool cultures and other stool assessments.

Sources:

Kliegman: Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics, 18th ed.

Long: Principles and Practice of Pediatric Infectious Diseases, 3rd ed.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration Foodborne Pathogenic Microorganisms and Natural Toxins Handbook.

CDC. 2006 Annual Listing of Foodborne Disease Outbreaks, United States.

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