Information About Food Poisoning

Defining Food Poisoning

E. coli bacteria.
E. coli bacteria.. Ian Cuming/Getty Images

Synonyms: Foodborne illness

Medical Specialties: Emergency medicine, Internal medicine, Family medicine, Gastroenterology

Clinical Definition: Food poisoning is the term used to describe an acute illness caused by ingesting contaminated food. The causative agent in food is usually bacteria, parasites or viruses. Bacteria that commonly cause food poisoning include Escherichia coli and Campylobacter. Food poisoning often causes gastrointestinal symptoms like diarrhea.

In Our Own Words: Whether we like it or not, we eat bacteria every day, but when certain microorganisms are present in our food, they can continue to grow, infect us, or cause illness due to the toxins they produce. A few of the most commonly responsible bacteria are Salmonella and E. coli. Safe handling of food and proper cooking and storage can reduce the risk of food poisoning.

More Information About Food Poisoning

Diarrhea caused by food poisoning is the most frequent type of infection worldwide and kills 1.4 million people a year. This disease is especially frequent among children living in developing countries, with 1.7 billion cases occurring each year. More specifically, children in these countries experience about 3 bouts of food-borne illness a year.

Although acute diarrheal illness and food poisoning kill only a minority of people affected, recurrent infection can result in a host of other problems which impact quality of life including the following:

  • stunted physical growth
  • stunted mental development
  • vitamin and micronutrient deficiencies
  • malnutrition

Because a plethora of infectious agents can cause food poisoning, such as bacteria, viruses and parasites, the symptoms and treatments associated with diarrheal illnesses vary.

Every time we eat something, we are exposed to some bacteria.

Fortunately, most people have strong immune systems and can stave off food poisoning in various ways including the following:

  • gastric acid
  • intestinal microbiota, or bacteria that already live in our gut and prevent colonization of foreign bacteria
  • peristalsis, or movement of our gut, which clears out foreign sources of infection
  • immune response and antibody production

The best way to deal with food poisoning and acute diarrhea is to avoid these conditions in the first place. For example, travelers to other countries can avoid food poisoning by eating only foods that are fully cooked and hot and avoiding unpeeled fruits and vegetables. Furthermore, it may be a good idea to take bismuth (Pepto-Bismol) while on vacation as a means of protecting yourself from such infections. Of note, for healthy people on a trip, it's often a bad idea to take antibiotics to prevent infection with food-borne illness because antibiotics increase the risk of developing a drug-resistant infection.

Although most causes of acute diarrhea and food poisoning have yet to be prevented by vaccine, an effective vaccine does exist for rotavirus, a common viral cause of such illness.


The University of Chicago Medicine. Food Poisoning. Assessed October 2013.

University of Maryland Medical Centre. Food Poisoning. Assessed October 2013.

NYU Langone Medical Center. Food Poisoning. Assessed October 2013.

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