Food Poisoning

  • Medical Author:
    Benjamin Wedro, MD, FACEP, FAAEM

    Dr. Ben Wedro practices emergency medicine at Gundersen Clinic, a regional trauma center in La Crosse, Wisconsin. His background includes undergraduate and medical studies at the University of Alberta, a Family Practice internship at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario and residency training in Emergency Medicine at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.

  • Medical Editor: Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD
    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.

Quick GuideUncommon and Common Food-Poisoning Dangers in Pictures

Uncommon and Common Food-Poisoning Dangers in Pictures

What are the causes of food poisoning?

There many causes of food poisoning. Sometimes they are classified by how quickly the symptoms begin after eating potentially contaminated food. Think of this as the incubation time from when food enters the body until symptoms begin. The following are examples of how this time classification can be arranged:

Short incubation of less than 16 to 24 hours

Chemical causes

  • Scrombroid poisoning usually is due to poorly cooked or stored fish. The affected person will experience flushing, shortness of breath, and difficulty swallowing within 1 to 2 hours of eating.
  • Ciguatera poisoning is another fish toxin that occurs after eating fish such as grouper, snapper, and barracuda. Symptoms include vomiting and diarrhea, muscle aches, and neurologic complaints including headache, numbness and tingling, hallucinations, and difficulty with balance (ataxia).
  • Mushroom ingestions can cause initial symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea. Eating Amanita mushrooms can cause liver and kidney failure leading to death.

Bacterium Causes

  • Staphylococcus aureus poisoning is due to a toxin that is pre-formed in food before it is eaten. It causes vomiting within 1 to 6 hours after eating the contaminated food.
  • Bacillus cereus is an infection that occurs after eating poorly cooked or raw rice.
  • Clostridium perfringens produces a spore that may germinate in cooked meat that has been stored in an environment that was too warm. Within 8 to 12 hours, it may cause profuse diarrhea.

Intermediate incubation from about 1 to 3 days

Infections of the large intestine or colon can cause bloody, mucousy diarrhea associated with crampy abdominal pain.

  • Campylobacter, according to CDC data, is the number one cause of food-borne disease in the United States.
  • Shigella spp contaminate food and water and cause dysentery (severe diarrhea often containing mucus and blood).
  • Salmonella infections often occur because of poorly or undercooked cooked, and poor handling of the chicken and eggs. In individuals with weakened immune systems, including the elderly, the infection can enter the bloodstream and cause potentially life-threatening infections.
  • Vibrio parahaemolyticus can contaminate saltwater shellfish and cause a watery diarrhea.

Diarrhea due to small bowel infection tends not to be bloody, but infections may affect both the small and large intestine at the same time.

  • E. coli (enterotoxigenic) is the most common cause of traveler's diarrhea. It lacks symptoms such as fever or bloody diarrhea.
  • Vibrio cholerae, often from contaminated drinking, water produces a voluminous watery diarrhea resembling rice-water.
  • Viruses such as Norwalk, rotavirus and adenovirus tend to have other symptoms associated with an infection including fever, chills, headache, and vomiting.
  • Botulism is caused by Clostridium botulinum toxin and may present with fever, vomiting, mild diarrhea, numbness, and weakness leading to paralysis.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 11/4/2016

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