Foodborne illness: Symptoms, Complications, Treatment


Foodborne illness (also foodborne disease and colloquially referred to as food poisoning) is an infection or irritation of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract caused by food or beverages that contain harmful bacteria, parasites, viruses, or chemicals. In most cases, foodborne illnesses are acute. They occur suddenly and last for a short period of time, and people usually can recover without treatment. However, foodborne illnesses sometimes may cause serious complications.

It is estimated that 48 million people in the United States experience this condition each year. And 128, 000 hospitalizations and about 3,000 deaths are caused annually.


Symptoms of foodborne illnesses depend on its cause. Some common symptoms include:

  • vomiting
  • diarrhea or bloody diarrhea
  • abdominal pain
  • fever
  • chills

Symptoms can range from mild to serious and can last from a few hours to several days.

Besides, if C. botulinum and some chemicals affect the nervous system, you may experience:

  • headache
  • tingling or numbness of the skin
  • blurred vision
  • weakness
  • dizziness
  • paralysis


Harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites and chemicals may lead to foodborne illnesses. Most of the conditions are brought about by harmful bacteria and viruses.


Bacteria are tiny organisms that can cause infections of the GI tract. Harmful bacteria may already exist in foods when they are purchased. They may also contaminate foods during food preparation and multiply when foods are not kept properly.

Types of bacteria that may cause foodborne illnesses include:

  • Salmonella
  • Campylobacter jejuni (C. jejuni)
  • Shigella
  • Escherichia coli
  • Listeria monocytogenes
  • Vibrio
  • Clostridium botulinum (C. botulinum)


Viruses are tiny capsules, much smaller than bacteria, that contain genetic material. Common sources of foodborne viruses involve:

  • food prepared by a person infected with a virus
  • shellfish from contaminated water
  • produce irrigated with contaminated water

Common foodborne viruses include:

  • norovirus, which causes inflammation of the stomach and intestines
  • hepatitis A, which causes inflammation of the liver


Parasites are tiny organisms that live inside another organism. Foodborne illness may be caused by parasites such as Cryptosporidium parvum and Giardia intestinalis, Trichinella spiralis.


Some foods may be contaminated with harmful chemicals that can lead to illness, including:

  • fish or shellfish.
  • certain types of wild mushrooms.
  • unwashed fruits and vegetables that contain high concentrations of pesticides.


People with foodborne illnesses may have serious complications, such as:

  • dehydration

Dehydration will occur in people who don’t drink enough fluids to replace those that are lost through vomiting and diarrhea. Infants, children, older adults, and people with weak immune systems are most likely to have this complication.

  • hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS)

HUS occurs when E. coli bacteria lodged in the digestive tract make toxins that enter the bloodstream. The toxins can destroy red blood cells. Children younger than 10 are at highest risk.

  • other complications

In addition to dehydration and HUS, foodborne illness may cause many other serious complications. For example, C. botulinum and certain chemicals in fish and seafood can lead to spontaneous abortion or stillbirth in pregnant women. What’s more, chronic disorders may also be presented, including reactive arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome and Guillain-Barré syndrome.


Your doctor may ask about your symptoms, foods and beverages you have recently consumed and medical history as well as performing a physical examination to determine whether you have a foodborne illness. Moreover, a sample of your stool or vomit may be analyzed to help make the diagnosis. Sometimes, additional tests will be needed to rule out other diseases that have similar symptoms.


For most foodborne illnesses, the treatment is replacing lost fluids and electrolytes to prevent dehydration. Diarrhea in adults can be stopped by over-the-counter medicines. But it should be noted that people with bloody diarrhea should not use over-the counter medicines because these medicines may worsen the condition. These medicines also can be dangerous if used to treat diarrhea in infants and children.

If the cause of illness is confirmed, antibiotics may be prescribed to treat it.

Hospitalization will be necessary for those who are suffering from life-threatening symptoms and complications.

Keywords: foodborne illness; foodborne disease; food poisoning.

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* The Content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.