What To Know About Food Poisoning

June 10, 2024

The terms “food poisoning” and “foodborne illness” are often used interchangeably. Foodborne illnesses are any illness that comes about due to eating contaminated food or drinks. Food poisoning cases are those foodborne illnesses caused by a preformed toxin in the ingested food or beverage. The term “poison” refers to the presence of a toxin. Food poisoning symptoms usually come on quickly, within minutes to hours of consuming toxin-contaminated items. 

Understanding what causes food poisoning 

Most people have probably experienced food poisoning at some time in their lives. It is a common illness. Foodborne illnesses and food poisoning affect about 48 million Americans, causing 128,000 hospitalizations and approximately 3,000 deaths per year, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

Food poisoning can be caused by different bacteria, viruses and parasites. These include: 

  • Bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli, Campylobacter, Bacillus cereus and Listeria.
  • Viruses like norovirus, hepatitis A and rotavirus.
  • Parasites such as Giardia lamblia and Cryptosporidium, which commonly spread via water.
  • Poisons and chemicals.
  • Molds that produce toxins.
  • Toxins produced by bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus, Clostridium perfringens and Clostridium botulinum (a type of botulism).

Some foods and the way they are handled are more likely than others to cause issues. It can be caused by raw or undercooked food from animals such as meat, shellfish, poultry, eggs and unpasteurized milk. 

Vegetables and fruits can become contaminated. Actually, any food can become contaminated from steps in food production, food processing, cross-contamination and being handled by people. 

Related Reading: Guide to safe food handling. 

Food poisoning symptoms

Food poisoning often feels like having the flu, with symptoms that are very similar. This can complicate a person’s understanding of what is making them feel sick. 

Symptoms usually begin within minutes to days after consuming items. They may vary depending on the toxin causing the problem and other factors in the individual’s health. Common symptoms include: 

  • Vomiting and nausea.
  • Fever.
  • Cramps and pain in the abdomen.
  • Bloody or watery diarrhea.
  • Headache.
  • Weakness.
  • General fatigue.
  • Stomach bloating and gas.
  • Achy muscles.

Specific causes and timing of food poisoning symptoms 

Timing of symptoms can give an idea of what has caused the food poisoning. The cause and time of symptom onset include: 

  • Shellfish toxin poisoning – 30-60 minutes, also up to 24 hours.
  • Bacillus cereus – 30 minutes to 1 hour.
  • Staphylococcus aureus – 30 minutes to 8 hours.
  • Clostridium perfringens – 6-24 hours.
  • Clostridium botulinum – 18-36 hours (3-30 days in infants).
  • Listeria – 9-48 hours.
  • Norovirus – 12-48 hours.
  • Salmonella – 6 hours to 6 days.
  • E. coli – 3-4 days (can be up to 10 days).
  • Hepatitis A – 15-50 days.
  • Giardia lambia – 1-2 weeks.

Such information can be beneficial when contacting a doctor. 

When to seek treatment

Most food borne illnesses are self-limiting. Supportive measures are the mainstay of treatment therapy. Staying hydrated and replacing fluid and electrolyte losses with over-the-counter oral rehydration solution is usually sufficient.

Severe symptoms that last several days are cause to seek medical care to prevent the need for hospitalization. Patients should contact an ID Care doctor, or their family physician, for the following symptoms: 

  • Diarrhea or vomiting that continues for more than a few days.
  • Bloody, tarry or black diarrhea.
  • Body temperature over 101°F.
  • Tremendous abdominal pain.
  • Confusion.

Certain groups of people are at high risk for severe diseases including infants, young children, elderly, those carrying a pregnancy and people with immunocompromising conditions.

How long do symptoms last? 

Symptoms of food poisoning usually last a week or less, 24 hours in many cases. But many variables affect both how long it takes for symptoms to develop in an individual and how long the illness lasts. Sometimes food poisoning can cause serious illness requiring hospitalization.

Understanding symptoms, their duration and severity, and one’s own health conditions is important to determine if or when a person should seek medical attention. ID Care specializes in food poisoning, and our doctors can advise patients on the care they may need.

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