Foodborne illness, also known as food poisoning, is an illness that can strike at any time. Every year, 1 in 6 Americans will suffer some form of foodborne illness as a result of consuming raw meats, spoiled foods, or raw produce. The most common foodborne illnesses are caused during home preparation or in restaurants wherein staff members may be ill or have prepared food in an unsanitary manner. Produce purchased at farmer's markets often has a higher risk of being contaminated through contact with farm animals or contaminated water.
It can be difficult to tell which foodborne illness you may be suffering from, its origin, and how to treat it. After all, there are over 250 bacteria, pathogens, or viruses that can cause foodborne illness. Below we discuss some of the most common foodborne illnesses, where they are often found, and when you should seek medical treatment.
Most often found in: undercooked beef, unpasteurized dairy products, raw produce
Escherichia coli bacteria (more commonly referred to E. coli) are naturally occurring bacteria in the intestinal tract that aid in digestion.
However, when exposed outside the intestines, some strains of E. coli such as E. coli O157:H7 produce toxins that can cause infection or illness. The majority of E. coli outbreaks occur from June through September, although it is not entirely clear why.
E. coli is often transmitted through contaminated water or foods (like undercooked beef or unpasteurized dairy) or through contact with people or animals.
To minimize the risk of E. coli, make sure to thoroughly wash all raw produce, regardless of where it was purchased. Cooking your produce can also reduce your risk of E. coli infection. Thoroughly cook ground beef products to an internal temperature of 160F to kill any E. coli bacteria, poultry to 165°F, and other meats to a minimum of 145°F.
Make sure to clean and disinfect any areas where food is prepared before and after preparation.
For many people with E. coli, the food source of infection can be difficult to pinpoint as symptoms can begin anywhere from 1-10 days after the initial contact. Symptoms include severe stomach cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea and these symptoms can last up to a week.
Those who have weakened immune systems, as well as those taking medication to control stomach acid, are often more at risk for E. coli because the body is less able to protect itself. Young children, older adults, and pregnant people may also be at higher risk for infection.
Most often found in: Undercooked poultry, eggs, unpasteurized dairy products
Salmonella enterica are bacteria that cause an infection known as Salmonellosis. Similar to E. coli, Salmonellosis is also more common in the summer months.
Salmonella bacteria are transmitted via undercooked chicken or other poultry and unpasteurized dairy products. Raw eggs and foods containing raw eggs (hollandaise sauce, salad dressings, cookie dough, and cake batter) may increase the risk of Salmonellosis and should never be consumed raw.
Salmonella can also be transmitted via direct contact with someone with the bacteria or someone who has prepared your food.
To avoid Salmonella infection, make sure to prepare raw meats and produce on separate cutting boards to avoid cross-contamination of foods. Do not consume raw or undercooked eggs, poultry, or meats.
Poultry items should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165°F. Ground meat should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160°F, and other meats to a minimum of 145°F to kill Salmonella bacteria. Make sure to clean and disinfect any areas where food is prepared before and after preparation.
Salmonellosis symptoms can present anywhere from 12 to 72 hours after initial contact and last between four to seven days. Symptoms include abdominal cramps, diarrhea, and fever. Severe infections may cause high fever, lethargy, head and body aches, and blood in urine or stool.
Young children, older adults, people with compromised immune systems, and pregnant people may also be at higher risk for infection.
Most often found in: raw produce, shellfish, contaminated water
Noroviruses are one of the most contagious forms of foodborne illness. They are also the most common cause of foodborne illness, with experts estimating that half of all foodborne illnesses are a result of norovirus.
These viruses can be communicated via direct contact with someone infected or simply by touching a contaminated surface and are especially prevalent in daycare centers, nursing homes, and cruise ships due to confined quarters.
Another common cause of noroviruses is contaminated water or foods that have been prepared by someone who is contagious. Raw Shellfish and raw produce are also two of the major sources of Noroviruses. It is best to make sure these foods are washed and prepared properly to kill any viruses.
Frequently wash hands with soap and water to prevent the spread of noroviruses. Make sure to clean and disinfect any areas where food is prepared before and after preparation.
If you are ill with norovirus, avoid preparing food for others and stay home from work or school to avoid spreading the virus.
Norovirus symptoms can take 12 to 48 hours to present and typically last for 1 or 2 days. Common symptoms include cramps, nausea, diarrhea, fever, headache, and vomiting. Young children, older adults, and people with compromised immune systems may be at higher risk for infection.
Most often found in: undercooked poultry and meat, produce, unpasteurized dairy products
Campylobacter jejuni is a bacteria that causes an infection known as Campylobacteriosis. It is the most common bacterial cause of foodborne illness in the United States and the most common cause of Guillan-Barré syndrome.
Campylobacter infections are most often caused by eating raw or undercooked poultry or foods contaminated by raw poultry or meat. To avoid infection, cook poultry to a minimum internal temperature of 165°F. Ground meat should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160°F, and other meats to a minimum of 145°F to kill bacteria.
Prevent cross-contamination by using separate cutting boards and knives for raw meat and produce. Make sure to clean and disinfect any areas where food is prepared before and after preparation. Wash hands with soap and water for a minimum of 20 seconds after using the bathroom, preparing or eating food, and handling raw or undercooked meat.
Symptoms of Campylobacteriosis infections usually take 2 to 5 days to present and can last between 3 to 6 days. Common symptoms include diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, headache, fever, and abdominal pain. Older adults, young children, pregnant people, and immunocompromised people are at high risk for complications.
Most often found in: unpasteurized dairy products, raw sprouts, and melons
Listeria monocytogenes (often shortened to Listeria) is a bacteria that can cause an infection known as Listeriosis. Listeriosis is one of the most severe foodborne illnesses but is relatively rare, affecting about 1,600 people yearly.
Listeria is often found in moist environments and is present in the soil, water, and digestive tracts of animals.
Listeria is usually transmitted through foods with a long shelf-life under refrigeration or raw and unpasteurized foods. To minimize the risk of listeriosis, avoid eating and drinking products made with unpasteurized milk. Cook raw sprouts and deli meats thoroughly to kill any bacteria.
Reduce the risk of listeriosis from refrigerated foods by checking shelf-life dates, properly storing foods at their recommended temperatures, and storing leftovers within 2 hours. Make sure to clean and disinfect any areas where food is prepared before and after preparation.
Listeriosis symptoms can present within hours or after two to three days of contact. symptoms may last a few days or several weeks.
Listeriosis symptoms include fever, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and muscle aches. Severe cases can cause additional symptoms including headache, loss of balance, convulsions, stiff neck, and confusion.
Children, older adults, pregnant people, and immunocompromised people are at higher risk of listeriosis.
Visit urgent care for foodborne illnesses
Not all types of foodborne illnesses require a visit to urgent care. However, some signs may indicate a severe illness that requires treatment.
Seek medical attention if you have: a high oral temperature above 102℉, frequent vomiting that prevents keeping liquids down, signs of dehydration (such as dry mouth, little urination, and dizziness upon standing), bloody diarrhea, or diarrhea that lasts more than three days.
In urgent care, lab tests are often performed to diagnose the particular virus or bacteria that may be causing symptoms and determine the best treatment.
Most common foodborne illnesses have similar treatments, including rehydration, electrolyte replenishment, and management of symptoms such as nausea and diarrhea to improve food intake.
Antibiotics are often unneeded for foodborne illnesses caused by bacteria but may be necessary for severe cases. Illnesses caused by viruses do not require antibiotics, and treatment typically focuses on improving symptoms.
If you are unsure if you or your family should seek medical treatment for a foodborne illness, it is always best to err on the side of caution and consult a medical professional.
At urgent care, our on-site laboratory testing capabilities can help diagnose the particular strain of food poisoning you or a loved one may be suffering. You can walk in without an appointment, or you can check in online. We’ll have you back to feeling better in no time.
Written by Sarah Thebarge, Physician Assistant