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Foodborne Illness

(Food Poisoning; Foodborne Disease; Foodborne Infection)

Definition

Foodborne illness is a disease that happens after consuming contaminated foods or drinks.

Gastrointestinal System
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Causes

Foodborne illness occurs when food has:

  • Bacteria or poisons and toxins made by them
  • Viruses
  • Amoebas or parasites
  • Chemicals

Risk Factors

Foodborne illness is more common in babies and older adults. Other things that may raise the risk are:

  • Poor hygiene
  • Problems keeping food at the right temperature
  • Not knowing how to prepare food safely
  • Having a weak immune system
  • Pregnancy

Symptoms

Problems may not start until hours or weeks after consuming the food or drink. They may be mild to severe.

Problems may be:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Weakness
  • Lightheadedness
  • Headache
  • Belly pain or cramps
  • Not urinating
  • A very dry mouth or throat
  • Muscle aches and pains
  • Bloody stools or vomit
  • Fever or chills

Diagnosis

The doctor will ask about symptoms and past health. A physical exam will be done. The doctor may suspect foodborne illness based on symptoms. They may ask about suspect foods.

Tests may be done if the cause is not clear or symptoms are severe. Tests may include:

  • Blood tests
  • Urine tests
  • Stool tests
  • Vomit tests

Treatment

Most foodborne illness will improve in 12 to 48 hours. Most can recover at home. Symptoms can be managed with:

  • Drinking plenty of fluids to replace those lost with diarrhea and vomiting
  • Soft, bland foods until symptoms have passed
  • Medicines, such as:
    • Over the counter pain relievers
    • Anti-diarrheal medicine

Some foodborne illness will need medical care. For example:

  • Fluids may be given through IV to treat dehydration.
  • Botulism needs to be treated with an antitoxin.
  • Some types of infections may need antibiotics.

Prevention

The risk of this problem may be lowered by:

  • Only eating and drinking milk products that are pasteurized
  • Practicing proper hand hygiene before touching food
  • Cooking foods well
  • Rinsing fresh fruits and vegetables and peeling them before eating them
  • Not putting cooked meat on a surface that once had raw meat on it
  • Using different tools for meat and other foods
  • Not cooking or eating items that use raw egg, such as dressings and sauces
  • Not eating prepared food that has been outside a refrigerator for more than 2 hours, or 1 hour in very hot weather
  • Setting the refrigerator to below 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius)
  • To lower the risk when visiting places where this problem is common:
    • Drink bottled water and do not order drinks with ice
    • Only eat cooked fruits and vegetables
    • Do not eat foods from street vendors
  • Those with a weakened immune system or are pregnant should avoid foods with higher risk of problems such as:
    • Raw shellfish
    • Rare meat, hot dogs, deli meats, fermented or dry sausages
    • Unpasteurized dairy products
RESOURCES:

American Gastroenterological Association
http://www.gastro.org

Food Safety
http://www.foodsafety.gov

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Canadian Association of Gastroenterology
http://www.cag-acg.org

Canadian Partnership for Consumer Food Safety Education
http://www.canfightbac.org

REFERENCES:

Food poisoning. Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at: http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/diseases-conditions/food-poisoning.html. Accessed February 5, 2021.

Food poisoning. FoodSafety.gov website. Available at: http://www.foodsafety.gov/poisoning/index.html. Accessed February 5, 2021.

Food poisoning. Kids Health—Nemours Foundation website. Available at: http://kidshealth.org/kid/ill_injure/sick/food_poisoning.html. Accessed February 5, 2021.

Foodborne illnesses. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/foodborne-illnesses. Accessed February 5, 2021.

Shane AL, Mody RK, et al. 2017 Infectious Diseases Society of America Clinical Practice Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Infectious Diarrhea. Clin Infect Dis. 2017 Nov 29;65(12):e45-e80.

Last reviewed June 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Dianne Scheinberg Rishikof MS, RD, LDN  Last Updated: 2/5/2021