Since we've moved from an agricultural society to a commercial one, we have moved further from harvesting our own food products to relying on mass production to feed our families. And that means we have less insight into what we're eating.

The agents that can cause food poisoning are almost too many to count. But, there are four that stand out among the rest.

1. Escherichia coli (E. coli). Although it normally lives in the intestine of humans, certain strains of E. coli (such as E. coli O157:H7) can cause severe cases of food poisoning. It's often found after food has been exposed to manure or raw sewage.

Common symptoms include: Excessive gas, stomach cramps, fever, loss of appetite, and vomiting. In extreme cases, an E. coli infection can include bruising, bloody urine, and flushing of the skin.

If you suspect an infection: Call your doctor immediately. While most infections clear up on their own, dehydration is a serious risk. Be sure you're ingesting plenty of water and electrolytes to replenish your body with vital vitamins and minerals.

2. Salmonella. Salmonella poisoning is extremely common. According to the National Institutes for Health (NIH), nearly 40,000 people are infected each year. Any food can become contaminated if preparation conditions are unsanitary. Infection can be even more common when eating undercooked meat products, especially poultry.

Common symptoms include: Nausea, fever, muscle pain, vomiting, and diarrhea. Typically, the infection lasts between 8 and 48 hours.

If you suspect an infection: It's essential to replace electrolytes that are lost when experiencing diarrhea and vomiting. Additionally, follow what the NIH calls the BRAT diet. Eat bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast. These foods can help make your stools firmer.

3. Staphylococcus aureus. When foods are stored at room temperature, infection from Staph aureus bacteria is common. Common foods that attract the bacteria include custards, salads (including tuna and potato salad), poultry, and egg dishes.

Common symptoms include Nausea, diarrhea, abdominal pain, fever, and prolonged vomiting.

If you suspect an infection: The goal of treatment is to replace fluids and electrolytes lost by vomiting or diarrhea. In extreme cases, IV rehydration may be necessary to replace fluids.

4. Botulism. Botulism is a rare and serious illness that can enter the body through wounds, or through improperly canned or preserved food. The bacteria produces toxin generating spores. Even a small exposure to these toxins can result in severe infection.

Common symptoms include: Nausea, difficulty breathing, abdominal pain, difficulty swallowing, vomiting, weakness, and in severe cases, paralysis.

If you suspect an infection: Contact a doctor or the emergency room immediately. Prolonged exposure to botulism can be life threatening.

Words of Warning

In some cases, food poisoning is unavoidable; however, more times than not, it's preventable. Be sure to consistently follow proper food preparation techniques:

1. Wash you hands before and after touching food. Additionally, do not handle produce after working with meat products until your hands are thoroughly cleaned.

2. Be sure your preparation surfaces are clean.

3. Don't use the same cutting board for meat products and produce.

4. Rinse meat and produce before preparation.

5. Cook meat through. All meats should be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 140 ° F.


Managing Food Safety: A Manual for the Voluntary Use of HACCP Principles for Operators of Food Service and Retail Establishments. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Food and Drug Administration Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

Sobel, Jeremy. "Botulism".

Sodha SV, Griffin PM, Hughes JM. Foodborne disease. In: Mandell GL, Bennett JE, Dolin R, eds. Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone; 2009:chap 99.