Types of Food Poisoning

Commonly called food poisoning, foodborne illnesses result from eating spoiled, toxic, or contaminated food.  Typical food poisoning symptoms include diarrhea, nausea, cramping, mild fever, and vomiting.  The condition can be very uncomfortable and based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in six Americans will contract some variation of food poisoning annually.

The majority of food poisoning cases can be attributed to one of three causes which will be discussed in this article.

Food Poisoning Causes

  • Bacteria: Harmful bacteria is far and away the most common cause of food poisoning in the United States.  Some of the more common bacteria that contribute to food poisoning include:
    • E. coli: Bacteria that lives in the intestines of animals and people.  Can lead to intestinal infections that cause fever, diarrhea, and abdominal pain.  People with weakened immune systems, young children, pregnant women, and the elderly are at higher risk of developing these infections.
    • Listeria: Bacteria commonly found in foods such as melons, raw vegetables, some deli meats, and unpasteurized diary products.  Rarely is Listeriosis serious, complications are rare, and many people never experience any symptoms of infection.
    • Salmonella: Some bacteria in the Salmonella group, which live in the intestines of animals and humans, can cause food poisoning.  Infection results from the ingestion of water or food that is contaminated with feces.  It is a very common form of food poisoning, particularly in those under 20 year of age, and results in roughly 19,000 hospitalizations annually in the United States.  Because the bacteria grows best in warmer weather, infections are more frequent in the summer months.
    • Campylobacter: Leads to enteric campylobacteriosis which is an infection of the small intestine and one of the more common causes of intestinal infection and diarrhea worldwide.  CDC estimates that over 1.3 million people are infected by it annually in the US.
    • C botulinum (botulism): Although rare, botulism poisoning can be transmitted through eating contaminated food.  If left untreated, botulism can lead to breathing difficulty, paralysis, and possibly death.  Because the bacteria thrives in conditions with no oxygen, home-canned foods are often the culprit for poisoning cases.
  • Viruses: Viruses can also cause food poisoning.  One of the most common viruses is the norovirus which leads to over 19 million food poisoning cases annually and in rare cases can be fatal.  Less common viruses that cause similar symptoms include sapovirus, astrovirus, and rotavirus.
  • Parasites: While less common than bacterial infections, parasites can also cause food poisoning.  One of the more common, and potentially deadly, parasites is Toxoplasma.  This parasite is typically found in cat litter boxes and can live in the digestive tract for years undetected.  For pregnant women and those with weakened immune systems, the parasites can create serious complications if it invades the intestines. 

Fortunately, most food poisoning cases, while uncomfortable, tend to clear up completely within 48 hours.  Rarely is food poisoning life threatening but should a patient experience severe symptoms that persist for more than three days, they should consult a doctor as soon as possible.

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