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All You Need to Know About Foodborne Illnesses

Last Updated on Sep 04, 2015
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What is Foodborne Illnesses?

Foodborne illness, commonly known as food poisoning, results from consuming food that is contaminated with disease-causing bacteria or virus, by eating food which has natural toxic substances such as poisonous mushroom. Vomiting, fever, diarrhea, stomachaches are some of the common symptoms of foodborne illness. The incubation period of the causal organism determines the time between the food intake and manifestation of the symptoms.


The term foodborne disease or foodborne illness covers a wide spectrum of diseases that are caused by contaminated food. This contamination may occur at any stage starting from the process of food cultivation or rearing of meat-giving animals, to harvesting, processing, packaging, cooking and serving before consumption.

Foodborne Illnesses

The most commonly contaminated foods are raw meat, fish, eggs and chicken amongst others. Most of the uncooked dishes like salads, yogurts, etc can be contaminated when kept open on a serving plate on the counters or outdoors for a long time. When people touch food without washing their hands properly, the germs in the hand may also contaminate the food.

The vomiting and nausea continue even after the elimination of all the consumed food from the stomach. This is because the microbes move into the intestine and start growing there. Sometimes these organisms can also get absorbed into the bloodstream and deeper body tissues.


What are the Causes of Foodborne Illnesses?

Consuming contaminated food is the main cause of foodborne illnesses. Good hygiene practices before, during and after food preparation and also before, during and after food consumption is most important to prevent foodborne illnesses.

Pesticides and medicines in the food can be harmful to some people. These substances may cause irritation in any part of the digestive system, causing a chaos in the intestinal flora.

Sometimes natural substances present in the food can be toxic to humans and can cause food poisoning. Some types of mushrooms or reef fish are such naturally toxic substances.

Some common causes of foodborne illnesses include:

Pathogenic bacteria: Most common cause of foodborne illnesses is bacteria. Some of the common pathogenic bacteria are:

  • Salmonella typhimurium
  • Escherichia coli
  • Clostridium perfringens
  • Staphylococcus aureus
  • Vibrio cholerae
  • Coxiellaburnetii

Enterotoxins are bacteria that target the intestines. The symptoms of the foodborne disease caused by enterotoxins last long after the causal microbes have been killed.

Viruses: About one-third cases of foodborne illnesses in developed countries are caused by viruses. Some of the viruses that cause foodborne illness are:

  • Enterovirus
  • Rotavirus
  • Norovirus
  • Hepatitis A
Causes of Foodborne Illnesses

Mycotoxins: Mycotoxins are the toxic chemicals produced by fungi that colonize crops and these crops are harvested, distributed and consumed. The common mycotoxins that cause food poisoning include:

  • Altertoxins
  • Aflatoxins
  • Cyclopiazonic acid

Natural Toxins: There are several foods that may naturally contain toxins. Some plants can be toxic by nature. Animals can be toxic to humans if it has consumed a plant that has toxic substance to which the animal is immune. Some types of mushrooms have toxic chemicals in them. Shellfish poisoning can be classified into various types such as paralytic, amnesic, diarrhetic or neurotoxic, depending on the type of shellfish consumed.

Some of the possible ways for food to get contaminated which results in foodborne illnesses include:

  • Food obtained from animals that are consumed raw, such as raw meat, raw eggs, unpasteurized milk, raw shellfish, etc.
  • Animal waste is used as manure to fertilize the field or unclean water is used for washing the fruits or vegetables. These can contaminate the raw fruits and vegetables.
  • When grains are soaked for making sprouts, some of them may get contaminated with bacterial growth in the dampness.
  • Unpasteurized fruit juices/cider could become contaminated when the raw fruit which has been used to make the juice/cider falls to the ground and comes in contact with animal feces.
  • Food item touched or prepared by a person who is sick, especially the uncooked ones like salads and fruits, could lead to contamination.

What are the Symptoms and Signs of Foodborne Illnesses?

Some of the common symptoms of foodborne illnesses include:

  • Vomiting
Symptoms of Foodborne Illnesses
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Diarrhea, with or without blood
  • Fever and chills
  • Backaches and joint pains

The symptoms of foodborne illnesses also depend on the cause of the condition. The symptoms can range from mild abdominal pain and nausea to a serious sickness that can last up to several days or even prove fatal.

Foodborne pathogens that can disturb nervous system like Clostridium botulinum can cause a different set of symptoms. These include headaches, numbness of the skin, dizziness or weakness, blurred or double vision or even paralysis.

How to Diagnose Foodborne Illnesses?

The diagnosis of foodborne illness is clearly based on the recent history of consumption of food outside the normal routine. Severe vomiting and diarrhea that goes with such a history is enough to diagnose foodborne illness.

Diagnostic tests may include a stool culture as well as testing the sample of suspected food which supposedly caused the foodborne illness.

A healthcare provider must be consulted if any of the following symptoms are present with a history of change in food routine.

  • Signs of dehydration such as excessive thirst, dull eyes, etc
  • Prolonged vomiting
  • Diarrhea for two or more days in adultsor one day in children
  • High fever, greater than 101 degrees
  • Severe pain in the lower abdomen
  • Stools containing blood
  • Black and tarry stools
  • Symptoms of nervous system side effects such as blurred vision, difficulty in speaking, etc

How do you Treat Foodborne Illnesses?

Treatment of foodborne illnesses is mainly symptomatic and is focused on replacing lost fluids and electrolytes to prevent dehydration.

  • Diarrhea in adults can be managed with over-the-counter drugs like loperamide and bismuth subsalicylate. These medicines are not recommended to be taken if diarrhea is accompanied with blood.
  • Infectious diseases of the digestive tract are treated with suitable antibiotics.
  • Life threatening symptoms and complications may require hospitalization. These symptoms include severe dehydration, paralysis and hemolytic uremic syndrome.

Fluid and electrolyte balance can be restored with the following steps:

  • Giving oral rehydration solutions with electrolytes
  • Giving food that is easy to digest
  • Drinking water at frequent intervals
Drink more Water for Electrolyte Balance

Prevention of Foodborne Illnesses

Foodborne illnesses can be prevented by handling the food hygienically during storing, processing, cooking, cleaning, serving and eating. Some tips to prevent foodborne diseases are:

  • Raw and cooked perishable food items must be frozen or refrigerated promptly till they are ready to be used.
  • Foods such as poultry, beef, lamb and pork require temperatures of more than 150 degrees to kill the harmful bacteria present in them. Hence it is important to cook them till they reach the recommended temperature.
  • Fruits and vegetables must be washed and scrubbed with a brush before eating or cooking.
  • The person handling food must wash his or her hands with soap and warm water before working on them.
  • Utensils and serving cutlery must be washed with hot soapy water before and after they have been used for serving food.
  1. Foodborne illness - (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foodborne_illness)
  2. About Foodborne Illness - (http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/foodborneillness.html)
  3. Foodborne Illness: What Consumers Need to Know - (http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/foodborne-illness-and-disease/foodborne-illness-what-consumers-need-to-know/CT_Index)
  4. Food Poisoning - (http://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/health-topics/digestive-diseases/foodborne-illnesses/Pages/facts.aspx)

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