July 31, 2015

View as List Food Poisoning Facts

  • Food Poisoning Facts

    You ate at one of your favorite restaurants last night, and got sick several hours later. You blame it on the salmon, or maybe the salad. Should you call the restaurant or health department? It’s hard to pinpoint the cause of food poisoning, or even to be sure that it is food poisoning. Here are answers to some frequently asked questions.

  • 1

    What kind of food is most likely to make me sick?

    raw poultry, fish, shrimp, eggs

    Nearly any food, but seafood, produce, poultry, beef and eggs are the top five culprits. Raw foods and undercooked meats and seafood, as well as inadequately refrigerated foods, are riskiest, since refrigeration retards the growth of bacteria, and cooking at high temperatures kills most of them. Home-cooked meals are at least as risky as restaurant food.

  • 2

    What organism made me sick?

    render of microbes

    You’ll probably never know unless you go to a doctor and have a stool test. There are more than 200 foodborne infections, caused by bacteria (notably Campylobacter, Salmonella, Staphylococcus, and E.coli), viruses, and parasites. Toxins in the food (such as mushroom toxin and toxins from some fish) can also cause illness.

  • 3

    What number of bugs = illness?

    It depends on the organism. With some types it can take 100 million organisms, but with very virulent ones, a few organisms can cause illness. Viruses generally have a low infectious dose, and they multiply much faster than bacteria. It also depends on the age and health of the person eating the food. People with impaired or underdeveloped immunity, such as the elderly, young children, pregnant women, and those with certain chronic diseases (such as cancer or HIV), can become sick from smaller doses. They are also at higher risk for serious complications.

  • 4

    How long does it take before I get sick?

    close up of calendar and pen

    The incubation period can be anywhere from one hour to several weeks (the latter is rare). For the most common infections, it takes 4 to 48 hours for symptoms to appear. For parasites it can take more than a month. The longer the time lag, the harder it is to figure out the cause. So don't assume it was your most recent meal that did it.

  • 5

    Why do only some people get sick?

    The food may be unevenly contaminated, so not everyone will consume the same amount of organisms. And some people are simply more susceptible to certain infections.

  • 6

    How long does the illness last?

    Usually a day or two, but sometimes several days or even weeks, depending on the type of organism and the individual's health.

  • 7

    Food that looks or smells bad is more likely to make me sick, right?

    No. The microorganisms that cause spoilage are different from those that cause food poisoning, which seldom produce perceptible changes in food. Thus, food that looks and smells okay is just as likely to make you sick as food that looks spoiled.

  • 8

    How do I know it isn't a stomach flu?

    There is no such thing as stomach flu; the influenza virus doesn't cause diarrhea and vomiting in adults. But it may well be an intestinal virus, such as rotavirus or norovirus. These "stomach bugs" are highly contagious and travel in feces; food preparers or handlers who don't wash their hands thoroughly after using the bathroom are the most common source of outbreaks. You get infected from contaminated food or water or from touching contaminated objects and then touching your mouth or nose.

  • 9

    Nobody got food poisoning in my grandmother's day. Why is that?

    grandmother and granddaughter

    In some cases, foods or organisms are different today, according to the Institute of Food Technologists. Foods may contain new organisms, and organisms can evolve to become more virulent. In any case, people back then did get sick, but they usually didn't know it was food poisoning. Food is much safer today, thanks in large part to preservatives and better knowledge about food handling and preparation.

  • 10

    When should I go to the doctor?

    sick man gagging over toilet

    If you have bloody stool, fever, severe abdominal pain, or prolonged or severe vomiting or diarrhea, or are very dehydrated, you should see a doctor. The elderly, young children, pregnant women, and anyone with a weakened immune system should seek medical attention even for milder symptoms.

  • 11

    Should I call the restaurant where I ate?

    Yes, but don't be accusatory, since you can't be sure you got sick there. Don't expect them to accept responsibility, but if other people also call, the restaurant will know there is a problem. Better, call the local heath department.