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Was It Something I Ate?  >  Let's Start With The Basics



Have you ever awakened during the night with diarrhea, abdominal cramping, fever, a headache, or perhaps began vomiting and didn’t know what was the matter?  You might have thought you had the flu.  However, chances are you had a foodborne illness.


What Is Foodborne Illness?

Foodborne illness is caused by bacteria or other harmful organisms on food or in beverages that you ate or drank.  They might not be there when you buy the food or they might come from you, your kitchen, your pets or other foods.  Bacteria live everywhere—in many foods, on your skin, under your fingernails, on other surfaces, on animals and in the environment.


Who Is Most Likely To Get A Foodborne Illness?

People with chronic illnesses

Persons with weakened immune systems

Older adults


Why Are Older Adults More Susceptible To Foodborne Illness?

As you get older, the amount of acid produced in the stomach decreases.

The acid that is produced by the stomach helps prevent the chances of infection occurring if harmful bacteria are taken in through food or drink.


Lower levels of acid permit the rapid growth of harmful bacteria in the gut and the possible formation of poisonous substances.

As we get older, the immune system decreases in its ability to fight disease and preserve health.

Chronic illnesses such as diabetes, kidney disease, liver disease, and certain cancers may increase your risk for a foodborne illness.

Other medical conditions such as having an organ transplant or receiving chemotherapy or radiation treatments may also increase a person’s risk for a foodborne illness.


How Do You Know If You Have A Foodborne Illness?

Listed below are some of the symptoms you may have. You probably will not have all of them and they may occur at different times. Some may occur as soon as 20 minutes after eating the food. Some may not even occur until several weeks after you ate the contaminated food.

Sharp abdominal cramps







Stiff neck

Severe headache

Vision problems


How Can You Tell The Difference Between The Symptoms Of A Foodborne Illness And The Flu?

While some of the symptoms may be the same, the most common symptoms of the flu are:

Inflammation of the respiratory tract

Sudden onset of fever, chills, muscular pain, and/or headache

Severe tiredness


How Long Does A Foodborne Illness Last?

There may be a delay before the symptoms of a foodborne illness occur. This is called the incubation period. Symptoms of foodborne illness usually last only a few days. However, some may last for up to six weeks. How long your foodborne illness lasts depends on the following:

The type of bacteria

The number of bacteria in the food

How much of the contaminated food was eaten

How susceptible you are to the bacteria


What Should You Do If You Have A Foodborne Illness?

Get plenty of rest

Drink plenty of clear fluids (such as water, strained juices, caffeine-free soft drinks, broth, etc.)


Contact your healthcare provider, especially if:


Diarrhea is bloody

Diarrhea and vomiting are excessive

The symptoms include stiff neck, severe headache, and fever all at once


When Should You Call Your Doctor?

Always contact your healthcare provider if:


Diarrhea is bloody

Diarrhea and vomiting are excessive

The symptoms include stiff neck, severe headache, and fever all at once


When Should You Contact Your Local Health Department?

As soon as possible if you think the food that made you sick came from a restaurant or large gathering such as a church picnic, pot luck dinner, or party.


They may ask:


What made you sick?

Do you have any of the food that you think made you sick?

Where did you eat the food that made you sick?

Can we get a stool sample?


What Should You Not Do If You Have A Foodborne Illness?

Drink beverages high in caffeine, such as coffee, colas, and strong tea. These cause you to lose fluids.

Eat high-fiber foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grain cereals, and beans. These foods make you need more liquid and can also make the diarrhea worse.

Take over-the-counter medication such as antidiarrheal medications. These drugs may stop gastric secretion which may do more harm.




What Did You Learn?

Mr. Stark, a 73 year old man, recently ate something that he thinks made him sick.

Which of the following symptoms is not a common symptom of foodborne illness? (Choose one answer)


How long Mr. Stark’s foodborne illness lasts will depend on which of the following? (Choose one answer)


For the next 2 to 3 days, what should Mr. Stark do? (Choose one answer)




Please Select Another Topic to Continue

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Last Update: 04.06.12

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