A head of lettuce sealed in plastic. A chicken tender from the hot bar at the local grocery. A bowl of cereal. An oyster served on a bed of ice at a fancy seafood bar.
Which of these foods can give you food poisoning?
Most people might guess the oyster, but the answer is that any of these foods — even the cooked and packaged ones — can carry foodborne illness.
Food contamination can lead to illnesses that are uncomfortable or painful. For the very young, elderly, or people with compromised health, food contamination can even be deadly.
What Is a Foodborne Illness?
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) describes foodborne illness as a common but preventable illness that comes from eating food contaminated with pathogens. A person can experience food poisoning from bacteria like salmonella. Or they can pick up the pathogen from viruses like the norovirus.
How Common Is Food Poisoning?
Because most people recover on their own, cases of food poisoning often aren’t reported, and it’s difficult to have a firm estimate as to how many people experience it each year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that around 48 million people experience food poisoning annually.
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Common Types of Food Poisoning
The norovirus is the most common type of food poisoning in the U.S. Salmonella, staphylococcus aureus (A.K.A. staph), Escherichia coli (E. coli), and campylobacter are also fairly common. Listeria and Hepatitis A tend to be less common in the U.S.
Although it’s possible to pick up a less common foodborne illness in the U.S., public health officials most often hear about the same culpable contaminants. These pathogens spread mostly through improper food handling and storage.
What Is Norovirus?
A person who has had Norovirus likely remembers it well. Symptoms begin to appear within one to two days, and projectile vomiting is typically the first indicator of the illness.
Norovirus is the leading cause of acute gastroenteritis worldwide, and it’s blamed for 58 percent of foodborne illnesses in the U.S. The virus spreads easily through food or water that has come into contact with a contaminated person. A person can also pick up the virus by touching a contaminated surface.
In addition to vomiting, symptoms of Norovirus include diarrhea, cramps, headaches, and muscle aches. Symptoms can start as early as 12 hours after exposure, and they usually ease within one to three days. However, a person might still be contagious for several more days.
What Is Staph?
A chicken wing at a grocery store hot bar might seem safe because it is fully cooked. But it could have come into contact with staph, a germ that many people carry naturally in their nose or on their hands.
Staph symptoms come on hard and fast — as soon as 30 minutes after consumption. A person experiences nausea, diarrhea, and “violent vomiting.” Symptoms typically pass within a day or two, and most people do not need to be hospitalized.
What Is Salmonella?
Salmonella is considered a major worldwide threat. It can come from a variety of sources, including eggs, fish, flour, fruit, nuts, and vegetables. Most cases are sporadic, meaning they aren’t attached to a major outbreak.
In the U.S., the CDC estimates there are 1.35 million infections per year. With salmonella, symptoms can start within six hours of consuming the contaminated item. Most people experience cramps, diarrhea, and fever. Symptoms can last as many as seven days.
What Is Campylobacter?
Rinsing off a chicken breast in the sink might seem like a good way to prep the meat, but it’s also a good way to spread campylobacter. This bacteria is common on chicken, and it also shows up on other meats, seafood, and produce.
Symptoms typically present within two to five days. The person experiences diarrhea, which can be bloody, as well as cramps, nausea, vomiting, or fever. Symptoms can last for up to a week.
Campylobacter is a common foodborne illness, and an estimated 1.5 million people experience it each year in the U.S.
What Is E. coli?
There are many types of E. coli — a type of bacteria — and some are harmless and even live in people’s intestines. Some strains, however, can make a person dangerously ill.
There are many ways to pick up E. Coli, including from food. Contamination possibilities range from drinking a glass of raw milk that hasn’t been pasteurized to eating a lettuce leaf that was exposed to the bacteria during kitchen prep.
Symptoms appear after an incubation period that can last from one to four days. People often feel off during this period with stomach pain or loose stools. Symptoms then advance to diarrhea (which can be bloody), cramps, vomiting, and mild fever.
Most people start to see relief within the week. However, as many as 10 percent of people may experience a life-threatening complication that results in severe damage to the kidneys and red blood cells, requiring urgent medical intervention.
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What Causes Food Poisoning?
Most people are aware that raw foods like unpasteurized milk, raw oysters, and uncooked eggs are risky. But cooked or packaged foods can also be contaminated.
How To Prevent Food Poisoning
People have to be proactive when grocery shopping, storing, and preparing food. A can with a ding, for example, might seem like it’s fine and worth the discount. But the dent could have allowed bacteria to invade. Similarly, the mushy parts of fruit are more vulnerable to bacteria. Either pick another piece of produce or cut off the soft spots. Starting in the shopping cart, keep meat away from produce. Bag, transport, and store it separately.
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How To Prepare Meat To Avoid Food Poisoning
Meat should be cooked fully to kill off contaminants. For chicken, that means cooking to an internal temperature of 165 degrees. Other meats should go to 145, and ground meat should be at 160 degrees.
Frequently Asked Questions About Food Poisoning
How Long Does Food Poisoning Last?
Food poisoning can last from a few hours to several days, depending on the source of infection. Most cases resolve without treatment in 24 to 48 hours. However, some types of food poisoning can last even longer.
Is Food Poisoning Contagious?
Yes, food poisoning can be contagious. It can be transmitted from person to person, particularly through poor hygiene. If someone with food poisoning doesn't wash their hands properly after using the bathroom, they can spread bacteria or viruses to others.
How to Get Rid of Food Poisoning
The primary treatment for food poisoning is rest and hydration. Drinking plenty of fluids, especially with electrolytes, is crucial. In more severe cases, medical treatment may be necessary. It's generally advised to avoid solid foods until vomiting and diarrhea have passed.
What Does Food Poisoning Feel Like?
Symptoms of food poisoning can include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever, and general malaise. The intensity of these symptoms can vary based on the cause of the food poisoning and the individual's health.
What to Eat After Food Poisoning
After food poisoning, it's best to eat bland, easy-to-digest foods like toast, crackers, bananas, rice, and applesauce. Avoid dairy products, caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, and fatty or highly seasoned foods until fully recovered.
Can Food Poisoning Cause a Fever?
Yes, food poisoning can cause a fever. Depending on the pathogen involved, a fever can be a common symptom, often accompanied by other symptoms like abdominal cramps and diarrhea.
How Long Does Food Poisoning Take to Kick In?
The onset of food poisoning symptoms can vary widely. Some pathogens can cause symptoms within a few hours, while others might not cause symptoms for days. On average, symptoms typically develop within one to two days of consuming the contaminated food.
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