“Food Poisoning” or Something Else? How to Tell

Young woman holding hand over her mouth with bowl of glowing green food in front of her

When I was in college, “food poisoning” was code for “I had cafeteria ‘mystery meat’ last night.” As I got older it became “I ate too much Mexican food (or Italian, or barbecue… you get the picture). As an attorney who focuses on “food poisoning”, I know there is no “poison” involved, unless there is someone out to get you.

The correct term is “foodborne illness” or “food borne disease.” Every year, 1 out of 6 people in the United States get sick consuming foods or beverages contaminated with microbes or pathogens. There are more than 250 different food borne diseases, most of which are infectious diseases caused by bacteria, viruses and parasites. These diseases have varying symptoms but most begin with nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and diarrhea. Diarrhea is the most common symptom for many foodborne illnesses.

Unfortunately, these same symptoms mimic other diseases. So how do you know if it is a foodborne illness or something else? The answer is, you won’t know unless you are tested. According to the Centers for Disease Control, you should go to the doctor for testing if you have diarrhea along with the following symptoms:

  • Fever of over 101.5° F
  • Blood in the stool
  • Prolonged vomiting
  • Dehydration
  • Diarrhea that lasts more than 3 days

There is so much overlap between the various diseases, it is rarely possible to specify the type of foodborne illness without proper testing. Bacteria, such as Salmonella and E.coli, can be confirmed by a stool culture in the laboratory. Parasites are identified by examining stool samples under a microscope. Viruses are more difficult because they are too small to be seen under a microscope and are difficult to culture. Viruses need specific testing of the stool looking for genetic markers. Other types of food borne illness cannot be identified by routine testing procedures and require specialized, experimental and/or expensive tests that are not readily available.

Many food borne illnesses are not diagnosed and most are never laboratory confirmed. Either ill people do not seek medical attention, or if they do, they are not tested. It is estimated that 29 cases of Salmonella occur for every one that is laboratory confirmed.

If you believe you have a foodborne illness and seek medical attention, do not be surprised if your doctor does not prescribe an antibiotic. Many foodborne diarrhea illnesses are caused by viruses and will improve by themselves within 2 or 3 days. Also, viruses are not affected by antibiotics and treating a virus with an antibiotic can cause more harm than good. In mild cases of a bacterial infection, antibiotics are not necessary and your own immune system will be sufficient. Furthermore, overuse of antibiotics when not necessary can cause the bacteria to become resistant to antibiotics.

Foodborne illnesses can be serious, especially in young children, the elderly and people with fragile immune systems. So be sure to check with your doctor if you have the symptoms described above.

For more information about food borne illnesses, visit the Food and Drug Administration’s website.

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