Food Poisoning

Was this helpful?
25

What is food poisoning?

Food poisoning is a general term for a wide variety of diseases that are caused by ingesting food or beverages that contain toxins or are contaminated with harmful microorganisms, such as bacteria, viruses or parasites. Food poisoning is also known as food-borne illness. Every year 48 million Americans suffer from food-borne illnesses.

Food poisoning typically causes irritation and inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract that resolves within a few days. Food poisoning can be severe and lead to serious complications in some cases. Food poisoning can often be prevented by taking simple hygiene and food preparation precautions.

Types of food poisoning

The most common form of food poisoning is salmonellosis, which is caused by Salmonella bacteria. Other common types of food poisoning and their causes include the following:

  • Botulism is caused by Clostridium botulinum bacteria.

  • Campylobacteriosis is caused by Campylobacter bacteria.

  • Cryptosporidiosis (Cryptosporidium enteritis) is caused by Cryptosporidium protozoa.

  • Escherichia coli food poisoning is caused by eating food or beverages contaminated with certain types of E. coli bacteria (for example, E. coli O157:H7).

  • Listeriosis is caused by Listeria monocytogenes bacteria.

  • Mushroom poisoning is caused by eating raw or cooked poisonous mushrooms.

  • Shigellosis is caused by Shigella bacteria.

  • Staphyloenterotoxicosis is caused by Staphylococcus bacteria.

Many types of food poisoning are spread through food or beverages that have been contaminated with human or animal feces that contain infectious bacteria, viruses or parasites. Common sources of foods contaminated with infectious microorganisms include undercooked eggs, chicken, and poultry, or any undercooked or raw food that comes from animals, such as seafood, meat, milk, and dairy products. Any food or beverage can become contaminated with infectious microorganisms that cause food poisoning if it is handled by an infected person with unwashed hands or if it comes in contact with contaminated food or liquids.
Food poisoning can result in serious, potentially life-threatening complications, including dehydration, organ damage, meningitis, sepsis, stillbirth, and chronic arthritis. Seek prompt medical care if you have symptoms, such as vomiting, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea and suspect that you have food poisoning. Early diagnosis and treatment can minimize discomfort and the risk of complications and help prevent the spread of food poisoning to other people.

Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have symptoms of food poisoning and a decrease in alertness or lack of urination.

What are the symptoms of food poisoning?

Symptoms of food poisoning vary depending on the specific type of food poisoning, the amount of infectious microorganisms or toxins ingested, your age, medical history, and other factors.

Classic symptoms of food poisoning affect the stomach and intestines and include abdominal cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting. Symptoms of food poisoning and its complications can also affect other organs including the liver, skin, joints, and kidneys, and other body systems, such as the nervous system and respiratory system. Mild cases of certain types of food poisoning may not cause noticeable symptoms.

Symptoms of food poisoning can include:

Symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition

In some cases, food poisoning can result in serious or life-threatening complications, such as severe dehydration, meningitis, sepsis, stillbirth and miscarriage. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these symptoms:

  • Change in alertness or level of consciousness

  • Lethargy or unresponsiveness

  • Not urinating or urinating small amounts of tea-colored urine

  • Seizure

  • Severe difficulty breathing or severe shortness of breath

  • Severe weakness or paralysis

  • Unusual abdominal pain or vaginal bleeding during pregnancy

Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if your infant displays a sunken fontanel (soft spot on the top of the head), lethargy, no tears with crying, and few or no wet diapers.

What causes food poisoning?

Many types of food poisoning are spread through food or beverages that have been contaminated with human or animal feces that contain infectious bacteria, viruses or parasites. Any food can become contaminated with infectious microorganisms that cause food poisoning if it is handled by an infected person with unwashed hands or if it comes in contact with contaminated soil or water.

Contaminated foods

Foods that can be contaminated with infectious microorganisms include:

  • Home-canned food

  • Honey

  • Ice cubes made from contaminated water
  • Raw vegetables and fruits

  • Undercooked eggs, chicken and poultry

  • Undercooked or raw food that comes from animals, such as seafood, meat and dairy products

  • Unpasteurized apple cider and dairy products such as milk

  • Water and other beverages

Other sources of food poisoning and ingestion of toxins

Other sources of microorganisms that can cause food poisoning or related diseases include:

  • Animals that are infected with Campylobacter jejuni bacteria or other infectious microorganisms

  • Feces of a person with food poisoning

  • Food contaminated with the feces of pets or reptiles with salmonellosis

  • Soil contaminated with infectious microorganisms

  • Toxic or poisonous mushrooms

What are the risk factors for food poisoning?

Food poisoning can occur in any age group or population, but a number of factors increase the risk of developing the disease. Not all people with risk factors will get food poisoning. Risk factors for food poisoning and related diseases include:

  • Advanced age

  • Consumption of expired food

  • Consumption of leftovers that have been stored for more than two to three days

  • Consumption of raw or undercooked eggs or meats

  • Contact with a person or animal who has an infection with microorganisms that cause food poisoning

  • Exposure to pet feces, handling reptiles, or touching raw foods or foods contaminated with microorganisms that cause food poisoning

  • Pregnancy

  • Swimming in pools, lakes, reservoirs, and other bodies of water that are contaminated with infectious microorganisms that cause food poisoning

  • Travel to developing countries with untreated water or unpasteurized foods

  • Weakened immune system due to such conditions as HIV/AIDS, diabetes, kidney disease, cancer or cancer treatment, and steroid treatment

  • Young age (elementary school age and younger)

Reducing your risk of food poisoning and related diseases

You can lower your risk of developing or transmitting food poisoning and related diseases by:

  • Avoiding contact with a person who has food poisoning or its symptoms, such as vomiting and diarrhea

  • Cleaning wounds promptly and keeping them covered with a sterile bandage

  • Defrosting foods in the refrigerator or microwave, not on the counter

  • Drinking bottled water and eating pasteurized dairy products when traveling to areas with poor sewage treatment facilities and unpasteurized foods

  • Following swimming restrictions and beach closures of bodies of water that may be contaminated

  • Not keeping reptiles as pets in homes with infants and young children

  • Not picking and eating wild or unknown mushrooms or giving honey to infants

  • Not using ice cubes in beverages
  • Refrigerating or freezing leftovers right away and eating them within two to three days of refrigerating. Leftovers from restaurants should be eaten within 24 hours.

  • Throwing out expired food, leftovers, or perishable food that has been sitting at room temperature for two hours or longer

  • Washing plates, utensils, and cutting boards that have been exposed to raw meats or poultry in hot, soapy water before reusing

  • Washing your hands frequently during and after contact with a person who has food poisoning, gastroenteritis, or symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea

  • Washing your hands frequently, especially after using the bathroom, touching pet feces, handling reptiles and other animals, changing diapers, or touching raw foods

How is food poisoning treated?

Healthy adults may recover from mild to moderate cases of some types of food poisoning with rest, avoiding solid food until symptoms subside, and ensuring adequate hydration to prevent dehydration. However, seek medical care if you have symptoms of food poisoning, such as fever, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal cramps. Food-borne illnesses can spread quickly and potential outbreaks of food poisoning need to be tracked to contain the spread.

Food poisoning treatment includes:

  • Antibiotics for severe food poisoning caused by bacteria, such as salmonellosis, shigellosis, campylobacteriosis, and Escherichia coli (E. coli)

  • Avoiding solid food until symptoms subside

  • Drinking plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration. Fluids include water or an oral rehydrating fluid such as Pedialyte.

  • Hospitalization and rehydration with intravenous fluids if food poisoning does not resolve quickly or leads to dehydration or other complications

  • Rest

What are the potential complications of food poisoning?

Complications of food poisoning and related diseases, such as wound botulism, can be serious, even life-threatening in some cases. People most at risk of serious or life-threatening complications include:

  • Children

  • Infants

  • Older adults

  • People who have compromised immune systems due to such conditions as HIV/AIDS, diabetes, kidney disease, organ transplant, cancer or cancer treatment, and steroid treatment

  • Pregnant women

  • Complications of food poisoning include:

  • Complications of pregnancy, such as miscarriage and stillbirth

  • Electrolyte imbalance

  • Kidney and liver damage

  • Meningitis

  • Neurological and developmental problems in infants and young children

  • Paralysis

  • Reiter’s syndrome and chronic arthritis

  • Sepsis

  • Severe dehydration due to the loss of fluids and electrolytes from diarrhea and vomiting

  • Shock

Was this helpful?
25
Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 19
View All Food, Nutrition and Diet Articles
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Salmonella. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/salmonella/.
  2. Food Poisoning. PubMed Health, a service of the NLM from the NIH. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0002618/
  3. E. coli. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. http://www.niaid.nih.gov/topics/ecoli/Pages/default.aspx.
  4. Bresee JS, Marcus R, Venezia RA, et al. The etiology of severe acute gastroenteritis among adults visiting emergency departments in the United States. J Infect Dis 2012; 205:1374.