Pepto Bismol is an over-the-counter medication that can provide relief for some symptoms of food poisoning. It contains bismuth subsalicylate, which can help treat diarrhea, nausea, heartburn, indigestion, and upset stomach. Many people reach for Pepto Bismol when they have food poisoning in hopes that it will help settle their stomach and relieve diarrhea. But will it actually help cure a foodborne illness? Here’s what you need to know.
What causes food poisoning?
Food poisoning occurs when you ingest food or water contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites, or toxins. There are many different types of germs and toxins that can contaminate food and cause illness. Some common culprits include:
- E. coli
- Botulinum toxin
When you ingest contaminated food or water, you may start to experience symptoms of food poisoning within hours or sometimes up to a few days later. Symptoms often include nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, and diarrhea.
Most cases of food poisoning are caused by norovirus, salmonella, campylobacter, and E. coli. The symptoms tend to be self-limiting and go away after a couple of days as the toxins or bacteria pass through your system. But sometimes food poisoning can lead to severe dehydration and require medical treatment. Those at higher risk for severe illness include young children, older adults, pregnant women, and those with weakened immune systems.
How does Pepto Bismol work?
Pepto Bismol contains bismuth subsalicylate as its active ingredient. Here’s how bismuth subsalicylate works to treat some of the symptoms associated with food poisoning:
- It has anti-inflammatory properties which can help soothe nausea, diarrhea, cramps, and discomfort.
- It forms a protective coating over parts of the digestive tract which can help reduce discomfort and also treat mild bacterial overgrowth.
- It absorbs liquid which can make stools less watery and frequent.
So Pepto Bismol can help manage several problematic digestive symptoms that often accompany food poisoning. The bismuth subsalicylate essentially provides symptomatic relief by decreasing inflammation, absorbing excess fluid, and coating irritated areas of the digestive tract.
Will Pepto Bismol cure food poisoning?
While Pepto Bismol can certainly help control diarrhea and ease other digestive symptoms, it does not actually cure the underlying infection that causes food poisoning. Pepto Bismol will not kill or remove the bacteria, viruses, or other pathogens causing illness. Some key points:
- Pepto Bismol manages symptoms only – it does not treat the root cause.
- It can help make you more comfortable while an infection runs its course but does not speed recovery time.
- It should never be used in place of necessary medical treatment for severe food poisoning.
Pepto Bismol is considered safe to take with most types of food poisoning. But it’s mainly used for symptom relief, not as a curative therapy. The medication coats the digestive tract and can temporarily suppress diarrhea and discomfort. However, it does not eradicate bacteria or shorten the total duration of illness.
When should Pepto Bismol be avoided?
While Pepto Bismol is generally safe for food poisoning, there are some situations where it should be avoided:
- Children under 12 years old – Pepto Bismol contains salicylates and is not considered safe for younger kids.
- Pregnant women – The bismuth subsalicylate can be absorbed into the bloodstream and may potentially harm the fetus.
- People allergic to salicylates – An allergic reaction can occur in those hypersensitive to salicylates.
- Bismuth toxicity – Very high doses can cause bismuth toxicity, so follow dosage directions.
It should also be avoided if food poisoning is caused by heavy metal poisoning or toxins. Pepto Bismol is meant to treat digestive issues associated with bacterial, viral or parasitic infections. It will not bind to or remove toxins from contaminated food.
When to see a doctor
In most cases of food poisoning, Pepto Bismol can be used to manage bothersome symptoms at home as the infection runs its course. But see a doctor right away if you experience:
- Bloody diarrhea
- Inability to keep down fluids due to vomiting
- Signs of dehydration such as dizziness, weakness, excessive thirst
- Diarrhea lasting more than 3 days
- Fever over 101.5F
- Neurological symptoms like numbness or paralysis
Severe dehydration, bloody stools, prolonged illness, and neurological involvement may indicate a more serious condition requiring medical treatment. Don’t try to self-treat at home if you have severe food poisoning symptoms.
How to take Pepto Bismol for food poisoning
If you want to use Pepto Bismol to help manage food poisoning symptoms, take it as directed:
- Swallow 2 tablets (262 mg bismuth subsalicylate each) every 30 to 60 minutes as needed for diarrhea. Don’t exceed 16 tablets (4,112 mg) in 24 hours.
- Take the chewable tablets with water. Adult liquid dosage is 30 mL (2 tbsp) every 30 to 60 minutes as needed, up to 8 times in 24 hours.
- shake liquid well before use
- Avoid other salicylate-containing products like aspirin while taking Pepto Bismol to avoid toxicity.
- Call your doctor if symptoms persist for more than 2 days or worsen despite treatment.
Note that Pepto Bismol can make your stools black and your tongue darker. This is temporary side effect of the bismuth subsalicylate. Use Pepto Bismol as directed for relief of food poisoning discomfort and diarrhea. But seek medical advice if you don’t improve or can’t keep down fluids.
Lifestyle remedies that may help
In addition to medication, these natural remedies may help soothe food poisoning symptoms:
- Drink plenty of fluids – Prioritize hydration and electrolyte replacement.
- Eat bland foods like toast, rice, applesauce or bananas.
- Avoid dairy, fatty, sugary and high-fiber foods which can aggravate the GI tract.
- Get rest and sleep as much as possible.
- Place a hot water bottle or heated pad on your stomach for comfort.
- Ginger, chamomile, peppermint or fennel tea may reduce nausea.
Stay home from work or school until the illness has passed. Rest, hydration and bland foods will help your body recover faster. These simple self-care measures can go a long way when combined with Pepto Bismol for symptom relief.
The bottom line
Can Pepto Bismol cure food poisoning? Unfortunately no. While it can help manage troublesome digestive symptoms, it does not kill the underlying bacteria, virus or parasites causing illness. However, Pepto Bismol is a safe and effective over-the-counter option for controlling diarrhea, nausea and upset stomach due to foodborne infections. Just be sure to see a doctor if your condition is severe or does not improve within a few days.