Know the steps to follow if you develop a foodborne illness

Foodborne diseases are illnesses contracted from eating contaminated food or beverages. If you develop a foodborne illness, follow these important steps.

A woman clutching her stomach in pain.
Photo: Pexels/Sora Shimazaki.

Foodborne illnesses are infections caused by pathogenic microorganisms (germs that can make us sick) after people eat contaminated food or beverages. Disease or illness-causing microorganisms are called pathogens and include bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) collects data on 31 known pathogens that are commonly linked to foodborne illness. Poor handling of food can increase the transmission of these living organisms that humans cannot see, taste or smell.

Prevalence and who is at risk

The food supply in the United States is among the safest in the world, and still, the CDC estimates that there are 48 million reported cases of foodborne illness, 128,000 hospitalizations, and 3,000 deaths in the US each year. This adds up to 1 in 6 people who are affected annually by foodborne illness.

The risk of foodborne illnesses differs from person to person. Individuals who have a higher risk for foodborne illness include children under five years of age, adults 65 or older, people with weakened immune systems and pregnant women.

Foodborne illness may also increase the risk of other serious health conditions.

Symptoms of foodborne illness

Symptoms of foodborne illness can range from an upset stomach to death. The CDC lists common foodborne illness symptoms as diarrhea, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting and fever. Dehydration can be a result of any of these symptoms; therefore, drinking lots of fluids, resting and washing hands may assist in recovery. Depending on a person’s health and the type and amount of pathogen consumed, symptoms may start within a few hours up to a few days. Hepatitis A could take up to two weeks before symptoms appear.

Serious symptoms that may require medical treatment would be diarrhea that is bloody or lasts for more than three days, fevers above 102 degrees Fahrenheit, unable to keep from vomiting liquids, and dehydration according to the CDC. Symptoms of dehydration are dry mouth and throat, feeling dizzy when standing up and not urinating regularly.

Steps to take for serious symptoms

  1. Contact your physician or health care provider or seek medical treatment as appropriate if you develop serious symptoms or may be at a higher risk. If you receive medical treatment and it is confirmed that you have a foodborne illness, the healthcare provider will report to the local or state health department.
  2. Preserve the food that you suspect may have caused the illness, by packaging it to prevent cross-contamination with other food, and label it “do not use, do not throw away.” This food may be tested if there is a foodborne illness investigation.
  3. Gather information from the suspected food packaging and make a list of food and beverages that you can recall consuming in the past week (or longer) since the onset time for various foodborne illnesses differs.
  4. If you believe you became ill from the food you ate in a restaurant or other food establishment, contact the establishment, and let them know. This may help to identify a foodborne outbreak sooner.
  5. If you are unable to call the establishment, or they are not cooperative, call your local health department.

Knowing when and how to report foodborne illness may save your life and possibly someone else’s too.

MSU Extension provides many resources, including fact sheets, webinars, training and answers from food safety experts for best practices to prevent foodborne illness. For more information on keeping food safe, visit MSU Extension's Safe Food & Water website.

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