July 23, 2024

Did the Last Thing You Ate Give You Food Poisoning?

Whenever anyone gets sick with a foodborne illness, the main question is what food made them sick. Did the last thing you ate give you food poisoning?

Did the last thing you ate give you food poisoning?

The answer, surprisingly, is probably not. Bacteria and parasites that cause food poisoning have incubation periods. During that time, the bacteria grows and some produce toxins and your immune system starts to respond. The response is what causes the symptoms. It can take some time for the symptoms of food poisoning to develop, depending on the pathogen.

These incubation times are one reason why tracking the source of a food poisoning outbreak can be so difficult. First, investigators must interview patients and ask them what they ate in the past week. And second, it’s difficult for patients to remember what they ate in the past week.

These are the typical incubation periods for foodborne illness pathogens:

  • E. coli: 1 to 8 days
  • Salmonella: 6 to 72 hours, up to 6 days
  • Campylobacter: 2 to 7 days
  • Listeria monocytogenes: 3 to 70 days
  • Brucella: 5 to 50 days
  • Vibrio: 1 to 7 days
  • Clostridium botulinum: 12 to 72 hours
  • Norovirus: 12 to 48 hours
  • Shigella: 4 to 7 days
  • Staphylococcus aureus: 1 to 6 hours
  • Bacillus cereus: 10 to 16 hours
  • Clostridium perfringens: 8 to 16 hours
  • Cryptosporidium: 2 to 10 days
  • Hepatitis A: 15 to 50 days
  • Cyclospora: 1 to 2 weeks

As you can see, norovirus, Bacillus cereus, and Staphylococcus aureus infections were likely caused by the last thing you ate. And perhaps Salmonella and Clostridium botulinum. But not the rest.

These numbers are useful to investigators when they are trying to narrow down the specific pathogen that caused the illness. The average time of symptom onset is usually somewhere in the middle of the typical incubation period.

The best way to diagnosis a foodborne illness is laboratory confirmation, usually from a stool sample. Finding the pathogen in the stool is proof positive that that patient has listeriosis, or salmonellosis. Sometimes blood tests are performed as well. Doctors will also diagnose base on symptoms. For instance, bloody diarrhea is the classic symptoms of a Shiga toxin-producing E. coli infection, but it may also be a symptom of salmonellosis.

If a cluster of patients present with the same symptoms that indicate foodborne illness, an outbreak may be declared. Finding other patients with the same illness can also aid investigators who are trying to pinpoint the pathogen.

To protect yourself against food poisoning, and to get help quickly if you do get sick, it’s useful to know the symptoms of food poisoning that the various pathogens cause.

If you think you do have food poisoning, you should see a doctor if your diarrhea is bloody, if you have a high fever over 101.5°, if you can’t keep fluids down, or if diarrhea lasts for more than three days. Other symptoms that should prompt a doctor’s visit include a decrease in urination, a very dry mouth, or feeling dizzy.

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