Across America, chicken is very often what's for dinner. But if that everyday protein is greeted with an upset stomach, vomiting or abdominal cramps, you could be dealing with food poisoning — or, very rarely, your GI distress may be due an intolerance to chicken or outright allergy.
Here's more about why you might have stomach pain and other symptoms after eating chicken — and how to treat the discomfort.
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1. You May Have Food Poisoning
If you have stomach cramps after eating chicken, consider foodborne illness first. Along with nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and a fever, cramps are a typical symptoms of food poisoning, per the Mayo Clinic.
"The most common cause of stomach pain or GI distress after consuming chicken is food poisoning," says Beth Oller, MD, a family physician in Plainville, Kansas. There are a few ways chicken can lead to foodborne illness:
- Contamination: Poultry and other foods can be contaminated by bacteria or parasites which lead to feeling sick after eating chicken.
- Problems during processing: The chicken could have been mishandled during processing or shipping to the store.
- Not following food safety guidelines: The meat on your plate may not have been cooked correctly. Chicken can never be served raw or rare — it needs to cook to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit, per the USDA. "You can also get sick if the juice from raw meat has gotten onto surfaces or other foods," Dr. Oller says. (That's why you wouldn't want to use the same knife or cutting board to chop up veggies and raw chicken.)
The bacteria generally associated with food poisoning from chicken are Campylobacter, Salmonella and Clostridium perfringens, Dr. Oller says.
You may have symptoms as fast as a few hours after eating chicken (and they can last for several days), including nausea, vomiting, stomach pain and fever. Older adults, people who are pregnant, young kids and those with a compromised immune system are more susceptible to food poisoning, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
To avoid foodborne illness, follow these guidelines from the USDA:
- Refrigerate chicken in a fridge with a temperature that's 40 degrees Fahrenheit of below. Eat it within two days. Note: If you freeze chicken, it'll keep there indefinitely so long as it's continuously frozen. That said, as time goes on, the quality of the chicken may be lower.
- Thaw chicken safely (that means never leaving it on the kitchen counter). The easiest way to defrost frozen chicken is to place it in the refrigerator the night before. If you need to defrost chicken quickly, though, follow these steps, per the USDA: Place the chicken in a leak-proof bag. Then, submerge that bag in bowl or container filled with cold tap water. Replace the water every 30 minutes. This method will thaw a pound of chicken in around an hour — for a larger amount of chicken, up to around four pounds, it'll take about three hours, per the USDA.
- Prepared chicken (think: rotisserie) should be eaten within 4 days if refrigerated, or 4 months if frozen.
And, when in doubt, don't eat: If it's pink inside and undercooked or your cooked chicken shows other signs of being bad, avoid eating it.
Fix it: Many cases of food poisoning ease up after a couple of days and can be treated at home with rest, tiny sips of water and then eating small portions of bland food for a while after that, such as toast, bananas and rice. Avoid dairy, alcohol and fatty meals so your stomach has a chance to settle and get back to normal.
2. You Could Have a Food Allergy
It's not common for people to be allergic to chicken — in fact, a poultry allergy is considered very rare, per a July 2020 study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.
A poultry meat allergy could also be a secondary allergy, most likely due to an egg allergy (a far more common allergen). For instance, 5 percent of children who are allergic to eggs will have a reaction to chicken, according to Seattle Children's.
Food allergies cause your immune system to misfire, reacting to something in food as if it's dangerous to you, per the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (ACAAI). The result is an array of potential symptoms, including hives or a rash, a runny nose, wheezing and GI distress like stomach cramps, nausea and vomiting. In severe cases, a food allergy can lead to a potentially fatal reaction called anaphylaxis, which can entail trouble breathing and a loss of consciousness.
Fix it: If you have a food allergy, the most effective treatment for food allergies is to avoid the food entirely. That said, gastrointestinal problems will often clear up on their own or with over-the-counter remedies.
"And if anyone has symptoms of anaphylaxis, such as trouble breathing, swelling of the mouth or throat or a fast heart beat, they need to be seen in the ER immediately," Dr. Oller says.
3. You May Have a Food Intolerance
A chicken intolerance differs from a chicken allergy as it's the digestive tract that struggles to work well here, rather than the immune system, according to the Cleveland Clinic. That can lead to GI symptoms.
But unlike an allergy, a food intolerance, also called a sensitivity, isn't life threatening. Having an intolerance can lead to symptoms like stomach pain, gas, bloating, diarrhea, nausea and heartburn.
Fix it: To treat GI symptoms that can accompany chicken intolerance, your best bet is to try OTC options for diarrhea and gas. And while it's possible to still enjoy chicken when you have an intolerance, some people may need to stop eating this meat altogether in order to fix these digestive problems.
When to See a Doctor
If you're feeling sick after eating chicken, the most likely explanation is food poisoning. Reach out to your doctor if you experience the following symptoms, per the CDC:
- Frequent vomiting and an inability to keep down even water
- Diarrhea that lasts more than three days or bloody diarrhea
- Fever higher than 102 degrees Fahrenheit
- Dehydration warning sighs like extreme thirst, little or no urination or dizziness
For symptoms that are potentially due to an allergy, make an appointment to see an allergist.
Signs of anaphylaxis, such as breathing difficulty, throat swelling and severe wheezing, mean an immediate trip to the ER.
- American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology: "Food Allergy"
- USDA: "What are cooking times for chicken?"
- Mayo Clinic: "Food Poisoning"
- Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology: "Gal d 7—a major allergen in primary chicken meat allergy"
- Seattle Children's: "Food Allergy"
- CDC: "Food Poisoning Symptoms"
- USDA: "The Big Thaw — Safe Defrosting Methods"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.