Getting a stomach “bug” (usually a bacteria or virus) from food is a horrible ordeal. Unfortunately, this is an experience that most people share. According to the FDA, 1 in 6 Americans will experience foodborne illness each year. Though food poisoning is generally mild and can be treated at home, some cases are more severe. Children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems are at a higher risk of severe infections. However, some foodborne pathogens are life-threatening, even to healthy individuals.
Symptoms of food poisoning generally include nausea, abdominal cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea. The best protection against food poisoning is proper food handling practices. To avoid food contamination, make sure to wash your hands before handling foods and avoid leaving food at room temperature. Pregnant women, young children, the elderly and other people with weakened immune systems should be extra careful.
Food poisoning can take many different forms and come from many places. The term “food poisoning” is not entirely accurate. In most cases of foodborne illness, the culprit is a bacteria or virus. Though the toxins they produce cause many symptoms, the root cause of the illness is usually an infection. There are many different bacteria and viruses that can cause food poisoning. Mold, parasites, pesticides and natural toxins can also cause food poisoning. They vary in severity, symptoms, sources and how long they take to hit.
Take a look at this chart for a summary of some common forms of food poisoning:
|Campylobacter jejuni||Diarrhea, stomach cramps, fever, vomiting. Blood in diarrhea.|
Onset: 2-5 days
Duration: 2-10 days
|Raw and undercooked poultry, “raw” milk, contaminated water.||Cook poultry to an internal temperature of 165°F. Do not consume “raw” milk products.|
|Bacillus cereus||Abdominal cramps, watery diarrhea, nausea.|
Onset: 10-16 hours
Duration: 24-48 hours
|Meats, stews, rice products, starchy foods, and sauces.||Cook meat thoroughly. Do not store perishable foods at room temperature.|
|Salmonella||Diarrhea, fever, abdominal cramps, vomiting.|
Onset: 12-72 hours
Duration: 4-7 days
|Undercooked meat, poultry, and eggs, “raw” milk, and produce.||Cook meat thoroughly. Do not eat raw or undercooked eggs. Do not consume “raw” milk products. Wash produce thoroughly.|
|Staphylococcus aureus||Nausea, abdominal cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea.|
Onset: .5-6 hours
Duration: 1-3 days
|Milk and cheeses. Present on skin.||The toxins from Staph aureus are not destroyed by heat. Food must be kept above 140°F or below 40°F to prevent growth.|
|Clostridium botulinum (Botulism)||Botulism is a rare but serious form of food poisoning. Symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea, blurred/double vision, difficulty swallowing, and weakness. Botulism can be deadly and requires medical attention.|
Onset: 12-72 hours
|Improperly canned foods.||Avoid eating home canned foods. If you do eat home canned foods, make sure they are properly sealed and sterilized. Do not eat food from damaged cans.|
|Escheria coli||Severe diarrhea, abdominal cramps and vomiting. E. Coli can cause kidney failure.|
Onset: 2-8 days
Duration: 5-7 days
|Uncooked beef, “raw” milk, and juice, contaminated produce or water.||Cook meat thoroughly. Only drink pasteurized milk and juice. Wash produce thoroughly before eating.|
|Hepatitis A||Diarrhea, dark urine, jaundice, fever, headache, nausea, abdominal pain.|
Onset: 2-6 weeks
Duration: 8 weeks
|Produce, including berries. Shellfish from contaminated water.||Wash produce thoroughly. Cook meat and seafood thoroughly. Reheat cooked foods before eating.|
|Listeria monocytogenes||Fever, muscle aches, nausea, and diarrhea. Can cause stillbirth in pregnant women. Listeria can spread to the nervous system, causing headaches, confusion, and loss of balance.|
Onset: 1-4 weeks
|Pre-made deli foods and soft cheeses. Hot dogs, dried or fermented sausages, deli salads.||Cook meat thoroughly. Wash your hands before and after handling raw meat and eggs. Only consume pasteurized dairy products. Do not eat prepared deli salads.|
|Cyclospora||Diarrhea, loss of appetite, sudden weight loss, fatigue, nausea, stomach cramps.|
Onset: 1-14 days
Duration: weeks to months
|Produce||Wash produce thoroughly before eating.|
Though food poisoning is generally mild, some forms are more dangerous. Diseases like botulism and listeria can be life-threatening. There are a few key strategies for avoiding food poisoning. Using proper food handling techniques and checking restaurants health inspection scores can help decrease your risk. Storing and carrying meat separate from produce is another way to avoid food poisoning. Read use by dates on perishable foods and throw out old food.
Curious to learn more? Read about the relationship between climate change and foodborne illnesses.