All About Food Poisoning

Every year, millions of people receive medical treatment for food poisoning. Millions more cases go unnoticed because they are not reported or diagnosed. Basic food poisoning symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. While most people can weather minor food poisoning without permanent harm, it poses a greater risk to groups with risk factors that can make it serious or even fatal. High-risk groups include infants, pregnant women, the elderly, and chronic disease sufferers. Individuals with compromised immune systems are particularly vulnerable. Some very serious forms of food poisoning, like botulism, can be deadly to anyone.

Food poisoning ensues after a person eats something which has been contaminated by bacteria, viruses, or parasites. It is also a risk when people eat foods that have been improperly or incompletely prepared or handled incorrectly during the preparation process. Most people can expect to experience food poisoning more than once in the course of their lives. Symptoms to watch out for include diarrhea, vomiting, and cramps. You may experience general weakness or fatigue and possibly have a fever. Food poisoning symptoms generally last for 24 to 48 hours.

Food poisoning shares its symptoms with illnesses like 24-hour stomach viruses. Food poisoning often gets mistaken for other conditions because different people respond to food-borne bacteria and other contaminants in different ways. A perfectly enjoyable restaurant meal with your family might have no ill effects on you but leave a relative in agony.

Your immune system and its capacity to fight off infection play a large role in determining how serious food poisoning is to you. It’s not a condition to take lightly; even relatively mild cases could have serious health consequences. Fortunately, this common problem is relatively easy to avoid. A few common-sense steps will go a long way toward protecting you and your family from the dangers of food poisoning.

Even though America has one of the world’s safest food supplies, the nation still sees approximately 76 million cases of food poisoning every year. This is not hard to understand when you look at the prevalence of potential causes. It’s estimated, for example, that 60 percent (or more) of the raw poultry sold in the United States has some type of potentially-dangerous bacteria. Food poisoning is a distinct possibility for anyone who consumes contaminated foodstuffs. Health conditions, age, and other factors can increase or decrease one’s susceptibility to food poisoning. Pregnant women, the elderly, children, and people with immune deficiencies are the groups of highest concern.

Food poisoning is generally brief and non-life-threatening when the sufferer is in good health. The situation is entirely different for people suffering from pre-existing health issues or those in higher risk groups. This is why food poisoning causes roughly 5,000 deaths each year. Obeying a few simple rules in buying, preparing, and handling food will make it much easier to protect your family from food poisoning.

Food Poisoning: The Causes


Over two-thirds of food poisoning cases can be ascribed to the presence of unwanted bacteria. The most common problem germs are Salmonella, Bacillus Cereus, and Staphylococci Clostridia. Virtually all foods, regardless of how carefully they’re prepared, contain some bacteria. The question is just how many bacteria the human immune system can handle. Heavily-contaminated foods are more likely to overwhelm the body and cause a case of food poisoning. There is no hard and fast threshold beyond which food poisoning is inevitable, and individuals in higher-risk groups may succumb to food poisoning eating the exact same food as healthier individuals who experience no symptoms.


Viruses are the simplest creatures on Earth, consisting solely of genetic material in a protective shell. Viruses have to rely on living cells to provide the environment and raw materials they need to reproduce. This means they can’t multiply in food. Viruses are capable of surviving in food and infecting people or creatures that consume it. Though viruses cannot survive the high temperatures used in ordinary cooking, they can still cause food poisoning if you consume raw food or food that comes into contact with an infected individual after being cooked.


There are many chemical contaminants that can cause food poisoning symptoms, including pesticides, detergents, food additives, sterilizing compounds, packaging, and paraffin. These materials typically only cause food poisoning when they are mixed into food by carelessness food preparation at home or in a restaurant or through improper industrial procedures at a food packaging facility.

Poisonous Plants

Some plants can cause food poisoning symptoms if they are accidentally mixed in with foods (particularly vegetables) intended for human consumption. Examples include hemlock, black nightshade, rhubarb leaves, undercooked red kidney beats, and toadstools (frequently mistaken for edible mushrooms). Most plant toxins are unaffected by the cooking process.


Though it is extremely common, food poisoning is an extremely distressing problem at best. In adverse cases, it can even pose a life-threatening danger. After contracting a food-borne infection, individuals can be completely free of symptoms or experience a wide range of problems including (but not limited to) intestinal discomfort, bloody diarrhea, and severe dehydration.

The cause of food poisoning is eating food that has been contaminated with harmful organisms or compounds. Germs that can cause food poisoning include bacteria, viruses, parasites, and more. The most common problem foods are chicken, fish, raw meat, and eggs, but food poisoning has been linked to every sort of food imaginable. Food left outdoors, food exposed to open air, or food that has been stored too long all present increased odds of causing food poisoning. One common vector for food poisoning is when food is handled by individuals who don’t take adequate steps to clean their hands prior to preparing it.

Most cases of food poisoning are relatively mild, with symptoms resolving themselves in a few days at most. The recovery process is largely a matter of having patience and letting your body’s natural defenses clear away the contagion. Certain forms of food poisoning are more serious and may require professional medical attention.

Diarrhea is most often the first symptom of food poisoning you’ll notice. Nausea, vomiting, and stomach cramps are also common at the onset of the condition. In certain cases, you may experience a high fever or see blood in your stool. The severity of the symptoms you experience is largely dictated by the exact nature of the contamination in the food you’ve eaten and how healthy you are overall. Many of the symptoms of food poisoning – particularly diarrhea and vomiting – force your body to lose a great deal of fluid. This makes dehydration a serious problem to watch out for.

Food poisoning strikes mainly at your stomach and intestines, i.e. your gastrointestinal tract. Diarrhea is typically the first symptom to present itself, followed by vomiting, nausea, and cramps in the abdomen. Not every case of food poisoning causes all of these symptoms, and the ones you experience may be more or less severe. Additional symptoms that may accompany food poisoning include numbness, weakness, confusion, and tingling feelings in the extremities (hands, feet, and face).

The gastrointestinal symptoms attached to food poisoning are not exclusive to this condition, and you may contract them from organisms that did not enter your body via your food. Personal contact or water contamination may also cause food poisoning symptoms. Parasitic contamination (e.g. with the organism Giardia lamblia) is also spread in this fashion. Whether the organisms affecting you came from your food or from some other source, the symptoms and problems you experience tend to follow the same course.

The onset of symptoms typically occurs hours or days after the contaminating organism gets into your body. Most organisms do not begin to cause symptoms until they reach your intestines, attach themselves to the lining, and start to reproduce. Some organisms restrict themselves to living in the intestines, while others introduce toxins to your bloodstream or attack body tissues directly. The precise nature of the symptoms you experience and their severity will depend on just what sort of infection you are suffering from.

Similar symptoms (like vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach cramps) can be caused by a very wide range of different organisms. These diverse organisms tend to cause diarrhea and vomiting because these are integral parts of the body’s defense mechanism; it is attempting to purge itself of harmful substances.

Identifying the responsible organism in a case of food poisoning is usually difficult or impossible except in cases of major outbreaks.


Food Poisoning Risk Factors

  • Pregnancy
  • Youth
  • Old age
  • Immune-system-impairing diseases like diabetes
  • Eating meat, poultry, eggs, fish, or shellfish (clams, scallops, mussels, oysters, etc) raw or undercooked
  • Eating milk, milk products (e.g. soft cheeses), juices, sprouts and other foods which have not been pasteurized
  • Traveling to a developing nation
  • Consuming food that was handled, processed, or prepared in a careless fashion


When You Need To See A Doctor:

Dehydration: Symptoms of severe dehydration includes passing little or no urine, dry mouth, sunken eyes, fast heartbeat, feelings of dizziness or lightheadedness, and confusion.

You suspect botulism after consuming canned food. Symptoms include trouble swallowing or breathing, muscular weakness, and blurred or double vision.

You experience severe diarrhea for more than two days.

You experience frequent vomiting for more than one day.

You experience sudden, severe belly pain.

You suspect toxoplasmosis exposure during pregnancy.

Any symptoms persist after a full week of home treatment.


Contact your local Poison Control Center if you think you’ve eaten contaminated food. You’ll find a suitable number along with the other emergency contacts in your telephone book.

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