Do I have a stomach bug or is it food poisoning?

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There’s nothing worse than having to spend the day, or night, hugging the toilet. Whenever it happens, we always ask the question, “Was it something I ate?” Having compared with all the others who had the same meal if they are sick, we try to find out if it’s just another bug, or if it’s a serious case of food poisoning. Either case might result in a trip to the doctor, but the urgency is probably the most important element of this question. With one in six American contracting some form of food poisoning every year, according to the CDC, it is a topic worth discussing!

What is food poisoning?

Food poisoning also known as foodborne illness is caused by eating food contaminated by the toxins of infectious organisms such as bacteria, viruses and parasites. These organisms can contaminate food at any point of processing or production, and could even occur in your own home if you are not cooking or storing foods correctly. Most cases of food poisoning will resolve themselves with time; however in some cases it is necessary to seek medical attention. The most common forms of food poisoning are caused by bacteria such as Campylobacter, Salmonella, Shigella, E. coli, Listeria, botulism and norovirus.

What are the symptoms of food poisoning?

Food poisoning symptoms can start within only a few hours of having eaten contaminated food, but the speed and the effect depends on the source of contamination itself. Some forms of food poisoning might only occur days or even weeks later. Most forms of food poisoning have quite similar signs and symptoms and you may experience one or many of these.

Signs and symptoms of food poisoning might include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain and cramps
  • Fever

Should I see a doctor?

If you at any point feel very sick you should never hesitate to seek a medical opinion, the better safe than sorry approach is always best when it comes to your health, however the following is a list of warning signs that should encourage you to seek medical attention fast.

  • Frequent episodes of vomiting alongside the inability to keep liquids down.
  • Signs or symptoms of dehydration – excessive thirst, dry mouth, little or no urination, severe weakness, dizziness or lightheadedness.
  • Bloody vomit or stools
  • Diarrhea for more than three days
  • Extreme pain or severe abdominal cramping
  • An oral temperature higher than 101.5F
  • Blurry vision, muscle weakness and tingling in the arms.

How did my food become infected?

The pathogens that cause food poisoning can become present in any step of production, whether from growing, harvesting, processing, storing, shipping or preparing. A lot of these pathogens are inherently present in our food, but are normally killed by the heat of cooking. Thus raw and undercooked meals are always a higher risk of contamination. Cross contamination can also occur, for example when we put cooked meat on a surface that has uncooked meat on it or if the person handling the food hasn’t washed their hands, this can also introduce contaminants to the food.

Other foods that have are likely to cause food poisoning include:

  • sushi and other fish products that are served raw or undercooked
  • deli meats and hot dogs that are not heated or cooked
  • ground beef, which may contain meat from several animals
  • unpasteurized milk, cheese, and juice
  • raw, unwashed fruits and vegetables

Always make sure food is fresh and is prepared in a clean environment, with clean hands and no opportunity for cross-contamination, making sure that all raw ingredients are washed thoroughly. It is also essential to make sure that your food is properly sealed and stored, and to reheat food effectively if eaten at a later stage.

The following table published by mayoclinic.org shows some of the possible contaminants, when you might start to feel symptoms and common ways the specific organism is spread.

Contaminant Onset of symptoms Foods affected and means of transmission
Campylobacter 2 to 5 days Meat and poultry. Contamination occurs during processing if animal feces contact meat surfaces. Other sources include unpasteurized milk and contaminated water.
Clostridium botulinum 12 to 72 hours Home-canned foods with low acidity, improperly canned commercial foods, smoked or salted fish, and potatoes baked in aluminum foil, and other foods kept at warm temperatures for too long.
Clostridium perfringens 8 to 16 hours Meats, stews and gravies. Commonly spread when serving dishes don’t keep food hot enough or food is chilled too slowly.
Escherichia coli (E. coli) O157:H7 1 to 8 days Beef contaminated with feces during slaughter. Spread mainly by undercooked ground beef. Other sources include unpasteurized milk and apple cider, alfalfa sprouts, and contaminated water.
Giardia lamblia 1 to 2 weeks Raw, ready-to-eat produce and contaminated water. Can be spread by an infected food handler.
Hepatitis A 28 days Raw, ready-to-eat produce and shellfish from contaminated water. Can be spread by an infected food handler.
Listeria 9 to 48 hours Hot dogs, luncheon meats, unpasteurized milk and cheeses, and unwashed raw produce. Can be spread through contaminated soil and water.
Noroviruses (Norwalk-like viruses) 12 to 48 hours Raw, ready-to-eat produce and shellfish from contaminated water. Can be spread by an infected food handler.
Rotavirus 1 to 3 days Raw, ready-to-eat produce. Can be spread by an infected food handler.
Salmonella 1 to 3 days Raw or contaminated meat, poultry, milk or egg yolks. Survives inadequate cooking. Can be spread by knives, cutting surfaces or an infected food handler.
Shigella 24 to 48 hours Seafood and raw, ready-to-eat produce. Can be spread by an infected food handler.
Staphylococcus aureus 1 to 6 hours Meats and prepared salads, cream sauces, and cream-filled pastries. Can be spread by hand contact, coughing and sneezing.
Vibrio vulnificus 1 to 7 days Raw oysters and raw or undercooked mussels, clams, and whole scallops. Can be spread through contaminated seawater.