Authored by JoannaRasmuson

Food Poisoning Causes and Symptoms

August 21, 2019 | Family Medicine

Food poisoning describes any illness that results from eating contaminated food. Despite the many regulations and precautions designed to minimize foodborne illness in the United States, approximately 1 in 6 people experience some form of food poisoning every year. This results in almost 130,000 hospitalizations and approximately 3,000 deaths annually.

Understanding the causes of food poisoning—and learning to recognize the symptoms of this potentially harmful condition—can help keep you and your family safe from foodborne illnesses.

Common Causes of Food Poisoning

Most cases of foodborne illness occur due to bacteria and viruses. However, you can contract foodborne illness from ingesting parasites, toxins, mold and other contaminants. 

Contaminants make their way into the food supply in a variety of ways. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), some of the most common causes of foodborne illness include:

  • Failure to wash fresh fruits and vegetables before eating
  • Allowing ready-to-eat foods to become cross-contaminated by raw meat or eggs
  • Not cooking food to the proper temperature
  • Not keeping food properly refrigerated
  • Preparing food without proper sanitation (e.g., hand-washing)


Food Poisoning Symptoms

The time required for symptoms to develop varies based on the type of contaminant ingested, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For example, E. coli symptoms present three to four days after exposure. Salmonella symptoms present 12-72 hours after exposure.

It is important to note that the symptoms of foodborne illness can also vary depending on the type of contaminant ingested. However, most cases of food poisoning include the following symptoms:

  • Stomach cramps
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Fever
  • Dehydration 

When to Seek Treatment for Food Poisoning

The CDC recommends seeking medical attention if you experience severe symptoms such as:

  • Bloody stools
  • Fever of 102 degrees or above
  • Inability to keep liquids down
  • Signs of dehydration (dizziness upon standing, extremely dry mouth or throat, decreased urination)
  • Diarrhea lasting more than three days

Some people face an increased risk of serious complications related to foodborne illness. If you suspect a foodborne illness and fall into any of the categories below, the CDC recommends seeking the attention of a healthcare provider immediately.

  • Pregnant women
  • Children younger than 5
  • Adults age 65 or over
  • People with compromised immune systems 

Tips for Preventing Food Poisoning

Most foodborne illness can be prevented, according to the USDA. Although you can’t control what happens to the food you eat at restaurants or other people’s homes, you can take steps to minimize the risk of food poisoning in your own home.

The CDC recommends following these four simple food safety tips:

  1. Clean — Wash your hands thoroughly before and after handling food, rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under running water and always clean countertops, cutting boards and utensils with hot, soapy water.
  2. Separate — Keep raw meat, seafood, poultry and eggs separate from other food in your grocery cart, in your refrigerator and as you’re cooking.
  3. Cook — Cook food to the recommended temperature to kill germs, verifying with a thermometer rather than by appearance or texture.
  4. Chill — Keep food refrigerated and thaw frozen food in the refrigerator, in water or in the microwave, but never on the countertop.

Taking these simple steps can help keep you and your family safe from foodborne illnesses.


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“Food Poisoning Symptoms.” U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“Food Poisoning.”

“Foodborne Illness: What Consumers Need to Know.” United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). 

“Foodborne Illnesses and Germs.” U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“Fractures.” MedlinePlus.

“Sprains and Strains.” MedlinePlus.

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This information is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. You should always consult your doctor before making decisions about your health.