Foodborne illness: Common causes, signs and symptoms

March 30, 2017

When you are experiencing the extreme unpleasantness of foodborne illness, it may be difficult to discern the subtle differences between the signs and symptoms of the various causes of the illness.

But, the various causes of foodborne illness have drastically different short- and long-term health implications, from illnesses with relatively short durations and mild symptoms, to those with lengthy durations and severe consequences.

Pinpointing the exact number of foodborne illnesses is impossible, as mild cases go unreported, and are often dismissed as having a temporary condition, such as the “stomach flu.” In the United States, the Federal government has estimated that there are about 48 million cases of foodborne illness per year, or about one out of every six Americans experience foodborne illness in a given year.

Of those who experience foodborne illness each year, the government estimates that 128,000 require hospitalizations and 3,000 die. Those most severely impacted by foodborne illness are the very young and old, and those with compromised immune systems.

To help understand the differences between causes of foodborne illness, and their signs, symptoms, and implications, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has created a chart of the more common causes in the United States.

Organism; Common name of illnessOnset Time; Duration Signs & SymptomsFood Sources
Bacillus cereus; B. cereus food poisoning10-16 hours; 24-48 hoursAbdominal cramps, watery diarrhea, nauseaMeats, stews, gravies, vanilla sauce
Campylobacter jejuni; Campylobacteriosis2-5 days; 2-10 daysDiarrhea, cramps, fever, and vomiting; diarrhea may be bloodyRaw and undercooked poultry, unpasteurized milk, contaminated water
Clostridium botulinum; Botulism12-72 hours; variableVomiting, diarrhea, blurred vision, double vision, difficulty in swallowing, muscle weakness. Can result in respiratory failure and deathImproperly canned foods, especially home-canned vegetables, fermented fish, baked potatoes in aluminum foil
Clostridium perfringens; Perfringens food poisoning8–16 hours; usually 24 hoursIntense abdominal cramps, watery diarrheaMeats, poultry, gravy, dried or precooked foods, time and/or temperature-abused foods

Cryptosporidium; Intestinal cryptosporidiosis2-10 days; may relapse for weeksDiarrhea (usually watery), stomach cramps, upset stomach, slight feverUncooked food or food contaminated by an ill food handler after cooking, contaminated drinking water
Cyclospora cayetanensis; Cyclosporiasis1-14 days, usually at least 1 week; may relapse for weeksDiarrhea (usually watery), loss of appetite, substantial loss of weight, stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, fatigueVarious types of fresh produce (imported berries, lettuce, basil)

E. coli (Escherichia coli) producing toxin;1-3 days; 3-7+ daysWatery diarrhea, abdominal cramps, some vomitingWater or food contaminated with human feces
E. coli O157:H7; Hemorrhagic colitis or E. coli O157:H7 infection1-8 days; 5-10 daysSevere (often bloody) diarrhea, abdominal pain and vomiting. Usually, little or no fever is present. Can lead to kidney failure.Undercooked beef, unpasteurized milk and juice, raw fruits and vegetables, and contaminated water
Hepatitis A; Hepatitis28 days average (15-50 days); 2 weeks-3 monthsDiarrhea, dark urine, jaundice, and flu-like symptoms, i.e., fever, headache, nausea, and abdominal painRaw produce, contaminated drinking water, uncooked foods and cooked foods that are not reheated after contact with an infected food handler; shellfish from contaminated waters

Listeria monocytogenes9-48 hrs for gastrointestinal symptoms, 2-6 weeks for invasive disease; variableFever, muscle aches, and nausea or diarrhea. Pregnant women may have mild flu-like illness, and infection can lead to premature delivery or stillbirth. The elderly or immunocompromised patients may develop bacteremia or meningitis.Unpasteurized milk, soft cheeses made with unpasteurized milk, ready-to-eat deli meats
Noroviruses; Variously called viral gastroenteritis, acute non-bacterial gastroenteritis, food poisoning12-48 hours; 12-60 hoursNausea, vomiting, abdominal cramping, diarrhea, fever, headache. Diarrhea is more prevalent in adults, vomiting more common in children.Raw produce, contaminated drinking water, uncooked foods and cooked foods that are not reheated after contact with an infected food handler; shellfish from contaminated waters
Salmonella; Salmonellosis6-48 hours; 4-7 daysDiarrhea, fever, abdominal cramps, vomitingEggs, poultry, meat, unpateurized milk or juice, cheese, contaminated raw fruits and vegetables

Shigella; Shigellosis or Bacillary dysentery4-7 days; 24-48 hoursAbdominal cramps, fever, and diarrhea. Stools may contain blood and mucus.Raw produce, contaminated drinking water, uncooked foods and cooked foods that are not reheated after contact with an infected food handler
Staphylococcus aureus; Staphylococcal food poisoning1-6 hours; 24-48 hoursSudden onset of severe nausea and vomiting. Abdominal cramps. Diarrhea and fever may be present.Unrefrigerated or improperly refrigerated meats, potato and egg salads, cream pastries
Vibrio parahaemolyticus; V. parahaemolyticus infection4-96 hours; 2-5 daysWatery (occasionally bloody) diarrhea, abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, feverUndercooked or raw seafood, such as shellfish
Vibrio vulnificus; V. vulnificus infection1-7 days; 2-8 daysVomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, bloodborne infection. Fever, bleeding within the skin, ulcers requiring surgical removal. Can be fatal to persons with liver disease or weakened immune systems.Undercooked or raw seafood, such as shellfish (especially oysters)

Source: FDA


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