Foodborne illness, more commonly referred to as food
poisoning, is the result of eating contaminated, spoiled, or toxic food. The
most common symptoms of food poisoning include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Although
it’s quite uncomfortable, food poisoning isn’t unusual. According to the Centers for Disease
Control (CDC), one in six Americans will contract some form of food
poisoning every year.
What Causes Food Poisoning?
Most food poisoning can be traced to one of the following
three major causes:
Bacteria is by far the most prevalent cause of food poisoning.
When thinking of dangerous bacteria, names like E. coli, listeria and salmonella come to mind for good reason.
Salmonella is by far the biggest culprit of serious food poisoning cases in the
United States. According to the CDC, an estimated
1,000,000 cases of food poisoning, including nearly 20,000 hospitalizations, can
be traced to salmonella annually. Campylobacter
and C. botulinum (botulism) are
two lesser known and potentially lethal bacteria that can lurk in our food.
Food poisoning caused by parasites is not as common as food
poisoning caused by bacteria, but parasites spread through food are still very
dangerous. Toxoplasma is the most
often seen parasite in cases of food poisoning. It’s typically found in cat
litter boxes. Parasites can live in your digestive tract undetected for years.
However, those with weakened immune systems and pregnant women risk serious
side effects if parasites take up residence in their intestines.
Food poisoning can also be caused by a virus. The Norovirus, also known as the Norwalk
virus, causes over 19 million cases
of food poisoning each year, and in rare cases, it can be fatal. Sapovirus, Rotavirus, and Astrovirus bring on similar symptoms,
but they’re less common. Hepatitis A
virus is a serious condition that can be transmitted through food.
How Does Food Become Contaminated?
Pathogens can be found on almost
all of the food that humans eat. However, heat from cooking usually kills
pathogens on food before it reaches our plate. Foods eaten raw are common
sources of food poisoning because they don’t go through the cooking process.
Occasionally, food will come in
contact with the organisms in fecal matter. This most commonly happens when a
person preparing food doesn’t wash their hands before cooking.
Meat, eggs, and dairy products
are frequently contaminated. Water may also be contaminated with organisms that
Who Is at Risk for Food Poisoning?
Anyone can come down with food
poisoning. Statistically speaking, nearly everyone will come down with food
poisoning at least once in their lives.
There are some populations that
are more at risk than others. Anyone with a suppressed immune system or an
auto-immune disease may have a greater risk of infection and a greater risk of
complications resulting from food poisoning.
According to the Mayo Clinic,
pregnant women are more at risk because their bodies are coping with changes to
their metabolism and circulatory system during pregnancy. Elderly individuals
also face a greater risk of contracting food poisoning because their immune
systems may not respond quickly to infectious organisms. Children are also
considered an at-risk population because their immune systems aren’t as
developed as adults.
How to Identify Food Poisoning
If you have food poisoning,
chances are it won’t go undetected. Symptoms can vary depending on the source of the
infection. Common cases of food poisoning will typically include at least three
of the following symptoms:
- abdominal cramps
- loss of
- mild fever
Symptoms of potentially life-threatening
food poisoning include:
- diarrhea persisting
for more than three days
- a fever higher than 101.5°F
seeing or speaking
- symptoms of
severe dehydration, which may include dry mouth, passing little to no urine, and
difficulty keeping fluids down
If you experience any of these
symptoms, you should contact your doctor immediately.
How Is Food Poisoning
Your doctor may be able to
diagnose the type of food poisoning based on your symptoms. In severe cases,
blood tests, stool tests, and tests on food that you have eaten may be
conducted to determine what is responsible for the food poisoning. Your doctor
may also use a urine test to evaluate whether or not an individual is
dehydrated as a result of food poisoning.
How Is Food Poisoning Treated?
Food poisoning can usually be
treated at home, and most cases will resolve within three to five days.
If you have food poisoning, it’s
crucial to remain properly hydrated. Sports drinks high in electrolytes can be
helpful with this. Fruit juice and coconut water can restore carbohydrates and
help with fatigue.
Avoid caffeine, which may
irritate the digestive tract. Decaffeinated teas with soothing herbs like
chamomile, peppermint, and dandelion may calm an upset stomach.
like Imodium and Pepto-Bismol can help control diarrhea and suppress nausea.
It’s also important for those with
food poisoning to get plenty of rest.
In severe cases of food
poisoning, individuals may require hydration with intravenous (IV) fluids at a
hospital. In the very worst cases of food poisoning, a longer hospitalization
may be required while the individual recovers.
While having food poisoning is
quite uncomfortable, the good news is that most people recover completely
within 48 hours.
Food poisoning can be
life-threatening, however the CDC says
this is extremely rare.
How Can Food
Poisoning Be Prevented?
The best way to prevent food
poisoning is to handle your food safely and to avoid any food that may be
Some foods are more likely to
cause of food poisoning because of the way they’re produced and prepared. Meat,
poultry, eggs, and shellfish may harbor infectious agents that are killed
during cooking. If these foods are eaten in their raw form, not cooked properly,
or if hands and surfaces are not cleaned after contact, food poisoning can
Other foods that have are likely
to cause food poisoning include:
- sushi and other
fish products that are served raw or undercooked
- deli meats and
hot dogs that are not heated or cooked
- ground beef,
which may contain meat from several animals
milk, cheese, and juice
- raw, unwashed
fruits and vegetables
Always wash your hands before
cooking or eating food. Make sure that your food is properly sealed and stored.
Thoroughly cook meat and eggs. Anything that comes in contact with raw products
should be sanitized before using it to prepare other foods. Make sure to always
wash fruits and vegetables before serving.