The Rundown of Food Poisoning
UT Health Austin clinicians share their insight into what causes food poisoning and how you can prevent it
Reviewed by: Scott Selinger, MD, FACP, and Kristin Vinueza, APRN, FNP
Written by: Kaylee Fang
When basic food safety practices are not followed, outdoor picnics and cookouts can quickly turn sour. Harmful microorganisms, such as bacteria, viruses, and parasites, can multiply, leading to potential health hazards. Improper storage temperatures can lead to bacteria that multiples rapidly, while cross-contamination between raw and cooked foods can introduce pathogens to those dishes that are meant to be consumed without further cooking. Inadequate cooking temperatures may also result in undercooked food, failing to kill harmful bacteria. Additionally, poor personal hygiene, such as not washing hands properly, can transfer bacteria to food during preparation. Food poisoning is a foodborne illness that results from consuming contaminated food.
<br>What is food poisoning?
Food poisoning is a condition that occurs when a person consumes food or drinks that are contaminated with harmful bacteria, viruses, or parasites.
Common contaminants include:
- Viruses: Norovirus, rotavirus
- Bacteria: Salmonella, E. coli
- Parasites: Giardia
When ingested, these pathogens or toxins can cause a range of symptoms from mild discomfort to more severe complications.
The symptoms and severity of foodborne illnesses can vary depending on the specific pathogen or toxin involved and the individual’s overall health.
Common symptoms of food poisoning include:
- Abdominal pain
- Loss of appetite
Cross-contamination is a common cause of foodborne illnesses that occurs when harmful microorganisms, such as bacteria or viruses, are transferred from one food item or surface to another. The pathogens from raw or contaminated foods are unintentionally transferred to other ready-to-eat or cooked foods, utensils, cutting boards, countertops, or hands.
Other causes of food poisoning include:
- Spoiled food
- Poor hand hygiene
- Undercooked food
“Contaminants can enter the food at various stages, including during production, processing, handling, storage, and preparation,” explains Scott Selinger, MD, FACP, a board-certified internal medicine specialist in UT Health Austin’s Primary Care Clinic. “Additionally, the longer the food sits out, the bacteria start to multiply to a point that it can be harmful.”
All individuals are at risk for foodborne illnesses, which is why it’s important to take safe measures when handling food.
Groups at higher risk for food poisoning include:
- Infants and younger individuals
- Older adults
- People living with chronic conditions
- Pregnant people
- Travelers with limited resources
Is food poisoning contagious?
Food poisoning can be spread through fecal oral contamination, which is how bacteria is transmitted secondarily from person to person. Since diarrhea is a common symptom of food poisoning, this presents an opportunity for the illness to spread. Poorly washed hands can also result in the contamination of various objects and surfaces, including food utensils, doorknobs, kitchen surfaces, and light switches.
“If people who are sick handle food that is being prepared for others without proper hand washing, this can lead to community outbreaks,” shares Kristin Vinueza, APRN, FNP, a family nurse practitioner in UT Health Austin’s Primary Care Clinic.
If you suspect you have food poisoning, prepare yourself, as you may feel sick for a day or two. It’s important that you drink plenty of fluids, such as sports drinks and Pedialyte, to replenish any fluids that you may lose from the effects of food poisoning.
Over-the-counter medication can be taken to help ease symptoms of food poisoning.
Common over-the-counter medications include:
- Anti-diarrhea medicine, such as bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol) or loperamide (Imodium)
- Pain relievers and fever reducers, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil)
- Probiotics, such as Saccharomyces boulardii
If you’re living with medical conditions or taking other medications, check with your healthcare provider before taking any additional medication.
Food and Drinks
Stick with liquids. Once you are able to keep liquids down, initiate the BRAT diet.
BRAT stands for:
Ginger or ginger-based substances can also help with nausea.
Other foods that help with nausea include:
- Boiled starches
- Saltine crackers
When should you see a healthcare provider?
If symptoms are getting worse, consider consulting a healthcare provider.
Reach out to your healthcare provider if you are experiencing:
- High fever (over 100.4 °F)
- Bloody stool or vomit
- Inability to keep down fluids
- Dehydration, dizziness, dry mouth, muscle cramps, confusion, or decreased to no urine
- Diarrhea lasting more than 3 days or more than 6 episodes within a 24-hour period
- Severe abdominal pain
After the first day or two, symptoms should gradually begin to improve. You may continue to experience difficulty tolerating dairy for several days or weeks, and it can take weeks to months for your gastrointestinal tract to be completely back to normal.
“90% of Americans experiencing food poisoning or other foodborne illness are self-limited, which means they will get better on their own with time” explains Dr. Selinger.