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Why Identifying What Caused Your Food Poisoning is Important

Posted in Campylobacter,Cyclospora,E. coli,Food Safety,Listeria,Norovirus,Outbreaks & Recalls,Salmonella,Staphyloccocous,Vibrio on June 23, 2018

The CDC estimates each year about 48 million Americans get sick from foodborne illnesses, and of those cases, 38 million causes of those foodborne illnesses are unknown or unspecified.  They also report that 3,000 people die each year from food poisoning in the United States.

Even with these staggering statistics, food poisoning is highly underreported. Salmonella infections alone are some of the worst, with only one case reported for every 29 cases. Many people believe that their illness was mild, so reporting it is not really important.

That is not true.

What may be mild food poisoning for some can be deadly for others. By getting proper testing (which isn’t that expensive) and reporting food poisoning, we can identify outbreaks quicker, instill quicker recalls, and even save lives. This means we can identify contaminated foods, where they came from, and how we can prevent this contamination in the future. Just by reporting your foodborne illness, you can help make our food system safer.


To further drive our plea home, here are some myths out there about food poisoning and how you can play a part in helping make our food system safer.

Myth 1:  The last thing you ate is what made you sick.

Fact:  Oftentimes after eating contaminated food, there is a delayed period known as the incubation period, which is the time between exposure to the pathogen and when the symptoms start to begin.  Depending on the pathogen or organism, the incubation period can range from hours to days. (For example, if someone becomes sick with E. coli, it can take anywhere from 2 to 10 days for symptoms to show.)  It can also be depended on how many pathogens have entered your system.  Lab test can be done to confirm the specific pathogen that caused your illness.  Once you know the specific virus or bacteria that made you sick, you can then backtrack to possibly identifying the source of your illness.

Myth 2:  I’m more likely to get sick from a restaurant.

Fact:  Foodborne illness outbreaks at restaurants or nationwide recalls tend to gain the most public attention.  It may be surprising to know that 60 to 70 percent of all foodborne illnesses are caused by food cooked at home.  It is a proven fact that most home kitchens would not pass the standard State Department of Health inspection that all restaurants are required to pass.  Cross-contamination is major problem and can easily occur by forgetting to switch knives when preparing raw meat and produce or by not cleaning the cutting board in-between tasks.

Myth 3:  ALL gastrointestinal illness are foodborne illnesses.

Fact:  Not all foodborne illnesses are the same.  However, not every bout of diarrhea or vomiting is caused by a foodborne illness.  There are many different pathogens that can affect the body and make someone sick.  Most people are able to recover from their illnesses quickly and without medical intervention.  Some people can be seriously ill and suffer from severe health consequences which can result in death.

Getting to the Bottom of It

Ok, so you have spent the past few hours with your head in the toilet praying that whatever you have will pass soon.  It is not fun nor pleasant, but we have all been there.  While you are sitting there, you may be wondering what happened and what made you sick.

Step 1:  What are your symptoms?

These are the characteristic symptoms associated with food poisoning

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Watery diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Stomach cramps
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Fever

Vomiting may last for a while.  However, if vomiting lasts more than two days, you begin vomiting blood, you can’t keep down any liquid after 24 hours, you have severe diarrhea lasting for more than three days, you run a fever of 101.5 degrees F or higher, or you are severely dehydrated, seek medical attention immediately.

Step 2:  Identifying the food poisoning and symptoms

The chart below is adapted from the FDA list of the most common contaminants.  Remember, identifying the illness can help lead you to the source.

Illness/bacterium Onset Symptoms Duration Sources
Botulism (Clostridium
12-72 hours Vomiting, diarrhea, blurred vision, double vision, difficulty in swallowing, muscle weakness. Can result in respiratory failure and death Variable Improperly canned foods, especially home-canned vegetables, fermented fish, baked potatoes in aluminum foil
Cyclosporiasis (Cyclospora
1-14 days, usually at least 1 week Diarrhea (usually watery), loss of appetite, substantial loss of weight, stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, fatigue May be remitting and relapsing over weeks to months Various types of fresh produce (imported berries, lettuce, basil)
E coli infection (Escherichia coli) 1-3 days Watery diarrhea, abdominal cramps, some vomiting 3-7 or more days Water or food contaminated with human feces
Hemorrhagic colitis or E coli O157:h20 infection 1-8 days Severe (often bloody) diarrhea, abdominal pain and vomiting. Usually, little or no fever is present. More common in children 4 years or younger. Can lead to kidney failure. 5-10 days Undercooked beef (especially hamburger), unpasteurized milk and juice, raw fruits and vegetables (e.g. sprouts), and contaminated water
Hepatitis 28 days average (15-50 days) Diarrhea, dark urine, jaundice, and flu-like symptoms, i.e., fever, headache, nausea, and abdominal pain Variable, 2 weeks-3 months Raw produce, contaminated drinking water, uncooked foods and cooked foods that are not reheated after contact with an infected food handler; shellfish from contaminated waters
Listeriosis (Listeria
9-48 hrs for gastro-intestinal symptoms, 2-6 weeks for invasive disease Fever, muscle aches, and nausea or diarrhea. Pregnant women may have mild flu-like illness, and infection can lead to premature delivery or stillbirth. The elderly or immunocompromised patients may develop bacteremia or meningitis. Variable Unpasteurized milk, soft cheeses made with unpasteurized milk, ready-to-eat deli meats
May be called viral gastroenteritis, winter diarrhea, acute non-bacterial gastroenteritis, food poisoning, and food infection (Noroviruses) 12-48 hrs Nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramping, diarrhea, fever, headache. Diarrhea is more prevalent in adults, vomiting more common in children. 12-60 hrs Raw produce, contaminated drinking water, uncooked foods and cooked foods that are not reheated after contact with an infected food handler; shellfish from contaminated waters
Salmonellosis (Salmonella) 6-48 hours Diarrhea, fever, abdominal cramps, vomiting 4-7 days Eggs, poultry, meat, unpasteurized milk or juice, cheese, contaminated raw fruits and vegetables
Staphylococcal food poisoning (Staphylococcus aureus) 1-6 hours Sudden onset of severe nausea and vomiting. Abdominal cramps. Diarrhea and fever may be present. 24-48 hours Unrefrigerated or improperly refrigerated meats, potato and egg salads, cream pastries


It is important to note that only a doctor can diagnose the exact type of food poisoning, usually through a stool test. Early medical attention can also help reduce the risk of severe symptoms and long-term post-infection complications.

Ok, You Have a Confirmed Diagnosis. Reporting to the Health Department and Finding the Cause.

If you suspect food poisoning and have a diagnosis, contact your local health department and encourage your doctor to report it as well.  Be sure to give them your symptoms, what you ate (especially in the days before your illness), where you got the food, and when you became ill.  Your information can help identify a potential outbreak and may save others from suffering.

By: Keeba Smith, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)