One minute you’re fine, and the next you begin to sweat as crippling cramps move wavelike through your belly. You vomit or have diarrhea, or both, fearing you won’t live to see another day; then it goes away. You’re back to your old self, maybe after a day or two.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that this scenario, known as an “acute gastrointestinal event,” happens to all of us at least once a year. People tend to blame the last thing they ate, but most likely it could be something from a day or two ago.
It takes the stomach around four to six hours to empty a full meal, and then the small intestine takes about six to eight hours to get out all the nutrients and empty into the colon. The remains linger there for another one to three days.
While this may not be something you like to think about, knowing this information the next time you get sick will help you be able to estimate when you might have eaten the food that made you sick. For example, if you throw up something and don’t have diarrhea, it could be that what made you ill was something you ate within the last four to six hours. If you wake up in the middle of the night with cramps and diarrhea, it’s more likely something you consumed 18 to 48 hours earlier.