There are many types of food poisoning or food borne illness. Most likely, you’ve experienced at least one of them. Usually, it’s preventable. But, sometimes it’s just not your fault. Here is a list of some of the types of food poisoning, what causes them, and what type of suffering you can expect if you get them.
- Minimize the risk of food poisoning by cooking food properly, keeping it at the appropriate temperature, and using good hygiene.
- Washing hands and disinfecting surfaces is important.
- Note hand sanitizer is not a replacement for hand-washing. Hand sanitizer does not kill all sources of foodborne illness.
Food Poisoning Symptoms
How do you know you’ve got food poisoning and not the flu or some other illness? Usually, food poisoning symptoms start within a few hours to a day or two after eating contaminated food. A few types of food poisoning don’t show symptoms for a couple of weeks.
The main symptoms are:
- Stomach cramps
- Muscle aches
Some Important Types of Food Poisoning
While not an exhaustive list of types of food poisoning, here are some important food borne illnesses:
Listeria is a genus of Gram-positive bacteria that causes listeriosis. Listeriosis is a serious form of food poisoning that kills around 20% of those infects. Pregnant women, fetuses, infants, the elderly, and immunocompromised people are most at-risk. Symptoms show up anywhere from 3-70 days. Mild cases resolve on their own within a few days and cause fever, muscle pain, and diarrhea. Serious symptoms include sepsis, meningitis, and sometimes encephalitis. Antibiotics are the treatment of choice for severe cases. Unfortunately, Listeria lives in a lot of places, including uncooked meat and vegetables, unpasteurized foods, and processed foods (cheese, deli meat, frozen dinners). Cooking food kills the bacteria, so the biggest risk comes from contaminated fruits and vegetables. Refrigeration slows bacterial growth, often resulting in milder illness. If you see a food recall for Listeria contamination, pay attention.
E. coli is the short form of Escherichia coli. It is a type of bacteria found in human and animal feces. In your gut, harmless strains make vitamin K2. However, some strains cause illness. It’s relatively common in ground meat, but also occurs in produce grown in contaminated soil or handled by contaminated hands. Cooking kills the bacteria. Symptoms include fever, vomiting, pain, and diarrhea. Most people recover, but this foodborne illness sometimes kills the immunocompromised, young, or elderly.
The Campylobacter bacterium causes a type of food poisoning called campylobacteriosis. Symptoms include fever, cramps, and diarrhea (sometimes bloody). Usually, symptoms appear within a couple of hours and resolve within 2-10 days. Campylobacter can cause dehydration, sepsis, and toxic megacolon, particularly in immunocompromised people and very young children. Very rarely, it cause Guillain–Barré syndrome or damaged nerves connecting the brain and spinal cord to the body. The bacteria are part of the natural flora of cattle, swine, birds, cats, and dogs. Contact with contaminated drinking water or ice or unpasteurized milk also causes campylobacteriosis. This is a common form of traveler’s diarrhea. While not entirely preventable, only eating cooked food minimizes the risk.
Salmonella is a rod-shaped Gram-negative bacteria that comes from food contaminated by human or animal feces. It causes salmonellosis, which is a self-limiting gastrointestinal disease. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, fever, back pain, and diarrhea. Most people get sick within a couple of hours and recover in a day or two. You can’t kill Salmonella by freezing food, but cooking it thoroughly kills it. Common sources are raw eggs, undercooked chicken, and cross-contaminated food. For example, if you cut up chicken and then use the same cutting board for salad preparation, you can expect a personal experience with salmonellosis.
Staphylococcus is a bacteria that normally colonizes human skin without causing any problems. It comes from slaughtered livestock or from people not washing their hands before handling food. Where it gets out of control is when food should be refrigerated, but gets left out at room temperature. Heat kills staph bacteria, while cold slows its growth. Unfortunately, most staph infections are antibiotic resistant. Upset stomach, cramps, and diarrhea show up within 30 minutes to a couple of hours after exposure. Most people recover within a day, but severe infections can be fatal.
Ciguatera or ciguatera fish poisoning (CFP) is a foodborne illness you get by eating fish contaminated with coral reef algae toxins. It is the most common type of seafood poisoning. Symptoms occurs within 30 minutes to 2 days and include dizziness, weakness, numbness, sensitivity to heat and cold, itching, diarrhea, and vomiting. Sometimes low blood pressure and slow heart rate also occur. Recovery takes weeks to months. Reef fish, usually from the Caribbean or Pacific, sometimes carry the toxin. Cooking does not inactivate it. While few people die from ciguatera, some people suffer neurological symptoms for years.
Shigella is a genus of Gram-negative bacteria that causes human shigellosis, which is basically a type of dysentery. It is the leading cause of diarrhea world-wide. Symptoms begin as early as two to four days after consuming contaminated food and as late as a week after exposure. While the most common symptoms are nausea, vomiting, diarrhea (often with blood or pus), stomach cramps, and flatulence, shigellosis also causes seizures in young children. Recovery occurs within several days to weeks. Some people who get shigellosis develop reactive arthritis.
The bacterium Clostridium botulinum causes botulism. Symptoms appear within 12 to 72 hours and include fatigue, blurred vision, weakness, difficulty speaking, and sometimes vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal swelling. One way of telling it apart from most other types of food poisoning is that it does not cause a fever. Botulism is bad news, particularly for children, and is fatal in 5-10% of its victims. Botulism comes from a toxin the bacteria produce and not an infection. So, treatment relies on an antitoxin. You can get botulism from honey or damaged canned goods. Eating soil also leads to the infection sometimes, so avoid eating mud pies.
Hepatitis-A and hepatitis-E are viral infections. Unlike bacterial food poisoning, symptoms have a longer incubation time. Usually, viral foodborne illness shows up 2-6 weeks after exposure. Mostly these types of hepatitis cause stomach and intestinal symptoms, although they can cause jaundice (yellowing of the skin) and lead to chronic liver problems. The most common source of infection is fecal-contaminated produce, either from the growing conditions or else unhygienic handling. Raw or undercooked shellfish is another culprit.
Norovirus is the most common form of infectious diarrhea or gastroenteritis. Symptoms usually appear within 12-48 hours after consuming contaminated food and include stomach pain, vomiting, and non-bloody diarrhea. So, this Most people recover within one to three days. The causes are fecal contamination of food or surfaces. Hand-washing and routine disinfection are the best means of preventing norovirus infection. Note alcohol-based hand sanitizer does not kill this this virus.
Causes of Food Poisoning
It’s practically impossible to list all the sources of food poisoning because it has so many causes, but certain situations make it much more likely. You’re at risk for food borne illness if any of the following occur:
- Not refrigerating food that needs to be kept cold
- Not cooking food thoroughly (especially meat)
- Leaving cooked food at room temperature
- Not reheating cooked food properly
- Not washing your hands before preparing or eating food
- Contaminating food with other foods or dirty surfaces
- Eating food past its shelf life
Some types of food carry a higher risk than other. Food that is particularly susceptible to problems from contamination, improper cooking, or poor handling include:
- Raw eggs
- Raw meat, poultry, fish, and shellfish
- Unpasteurized milk and dairy products
- Uncooked produce, such as salad
Food poisoning also results from heavy metals, pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals either absorbed by the food or naturally present within it. For example, fugu fish poisoning comes from tetrodotoxin, which naturally occurs in pufferfish. Undercooking beans causes food poisoning from hemagglutinin, a natural glycoprotein that makes red blood cells clump together.
Parasites are another source of food poisoning. These include worms and protozoa. Cooking food properly kills most of these organisms, so the greatest risks come from undercooking, not washing food, or unhygienic conditions. Examples of parasitic foodborne illnesses include trichinosis and amoebic dysentery.
When to See the Doctor
Most cases of food poisoning resolve on their own. But, contact a medical profession if:
- You’re pregnant
- You’re elderly
- A baby or young child gets sick
- You have an underlying health condition, such as kidney disease or diabetes
- You have a weakened immune system (for example, from cancer treatment or HIV)
- Your symptoms are severe
- You are severely dehydrate (sunken eyes, rapid heartbeat, not producing urine)
- Your symptoms don’t improve within a few days
Otherwise, drink plenty of fluids to stave off dehydration. When you can eat, start with a small amount of bland foods. Examples include toast, rice, or crackers.
- Hobbs, B.C. (1993). Food Poisoning and Food Hygiene. British Medical Bulletin. Vol. 7. Edward Arnold. ISBN 978-0-340-53740-4. doi:10.1093/oxfordjournals.bmb.a073825
- Riemann, H.P.; Cliver, D.O. (2006). Foodborne Infections and Intoxications. Academic Press. ISBN 978-0-12-588365-8.
- Smith, J.L. (2005). Fratamico, P.M.; Bhunia, A.K.; Smith, J.L. (eds.). Foodborne Pathogens: Microbiology And Molecular Biology. Horizon Scientific Press. ISBN 978-1-904455-00-4.
- U.S. Food and Drug (2021). “Chemicals, Metals & Pesticides in Food“. Food and Drug Administration.