Food Poisoning Signs and Symptoms

Man suffering from stomach pain
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Even healthy foods can make you sick if they're tainted with germs. Foodborne illnesses are fairly common - in fact, every year, one of every six Americans gets sick from eating or drinking something that's contaminated.

Foodborne illness is often referred to as food poisoning, but most of the time it's caused by bacteria, viruses, or parasites. Actual toxins or poisons are not as common. The usual bacterial suspects are:

The signs and symptoms of bacterial foodborne illness include digestive system complaints and usually start within a few hours after you eat contaminated food. But it may take as long as a few days for the symptoms to start, which can make it difficult pinpoint which food made you sick.

Here's what you might be feeling if you've eaten something that's tainted:

  • abdominal cramps
  • diarrhea
  • fever
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • headache
  • weakness
  • the abdomen is tender to touch
  • dehydration

Do I Need to Go to the Hospital?

It's a good idea to see a doctor if you have these symptoms, but many people just stay home and wait it out. Infants and young children, pregnant women, seniors, and individuals with weakened immune systems need medical attention for food poisoning. Anyone else should seek care if the food poisoning signs don't improve in a day or two.

It's also a good idea to see a doctor so your illness can be reported to local public health departments that keep track of foodborne illnesses. If you were contaminated by foods sold by local restaurants or grocery stores, state health departments and the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control can issue warnings and recalls on contaminated foods.

How Can I Prevent Food Poisoning?

The best way to prevent foodborne illness is to avoid contaminated foods, which isn't always easy -- especially when you eat in a restaurant. But there are some things you can do to reduce your risk of foodborne illness at home.

  • Wash your hands before cooking, before serving and before eating meals.
  • Keep raw meat, eggs, and poultry away from any other foods that are ready to be served.
  • Use clean knives, utensils and cutting boards, and don't cross-contaminate raw meats and poultry with fruits and vegetables.
  • Wash fresh fruits, vegetables, and bagged greens.
  • Keep perishable foods at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or less.
  • Beef, veal, and lamb should be cooked to an internal temperature of 145 degrees.
  • Pork and ground beef, veal and lamb should be cooked to 160 degrees.
  • Poultry needs to be cooked to 165 degrees.
  • Leftovers should be heated to 165 degrees before it's served.
  • After they're heated, hot foods should be kept at 140 degrees or above.

The number of cases of food poisoning goes up during the summer months when the bacteria grow faster in the warmer temperatures.

Since summer is a great time for picnics and barbecues, be sure to follow food safety rules for transporting and storing foods outdoors.

When Food Poisoning Is Really Due to Poison

Food poisoning is usually caused by bacteria, but ingesting poisonous foods -- such as certain mushrooms or shellfish, or eating seafood harvested from contaminated water -- can cause similar symptoms. These forms of food poisoning are an emergency, and you need treatment immediately.

Sources:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Foodborne Germs and Illnesses." Accessed May 2, 2016. http://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/foodborne-germs.html.

The United States Department of Agriculture. Food Safety and Inspection Service. "Foodborne Illness: What Consumers Need to Know." Accessed May 2, 2016. http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/foodborne-illness-and-disease/foodborne-illness-what-consumers-need-to-know/CT_Index.

The United States Department of Health and Human ServicesNational Institutes of Health. "Food Poisoning." Accessed May 2, 2016. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001652.htm.

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