Each year, roughly 48 million people in the United States get food poisoning (also called foodborne illness). It happens when germs such as viruses, bacteria and parasites, or toxins (poisons) produced by them, get into foods we eat.
Foods can become contaminated with harmful microbes before you buy them, or at home if they aren't handled or cooked properly. As a result, food poisoning can affect individual families, or may be part of larger outbreaks. Here's what you should know.
Symptoms of food poisoning
The symptoms of food poisoning often seem like those from other intestinal illnesses: abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and fever. But if your child and other people who have eaten the same food all have the same symptoms, the problem is more likely food poisoning.
Some of the germs and other sources of food poisoning include:
Salmonella bacteria (there are many types) are a major cause of food poisoning in the United States. The most commonly contaminated foods are raw meat (including chicken), raw or undercooked eggs, and unpasteurized milk. Fortunately, Salmonella are killed when food is cooked thoroughly. Symptoms caused by Salmonella infection usually start between six to 48 hours after eating, and may last for 7 days.
Infant formula alert: In February 2022, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration issued an alert about powdered infant formula that may be contaminated with Cronobacter and Salmonella bacteria.
Contact your pediatrician and get immediate medical care if your baby has symptoms of Cronobacter or Salmonella infection. These may include poor feeding, irritability, temperature changes, jaundice, grunting breaths, abnormal movements, lethargy, rash or blood in the urine or stool.
To check if your powdered formula is part of the recall, enter the product lot code on the bottom of your package on the company's website. For more information, see Ask the Pediatrician: What should I know about the infant formula recall?
Escherichia coli (or
E. coli) is a group of bacteria that normally live in the intestines of children and adults. A few strains of these bacteria can cause food-related illnesses. Undercooked ground beef is a common source of
E. coli, although raw produce and contaminated water have caused some outbreaks.
Symptoms of an
E. coli infection typically include diarrhea (which can range from mild to severe), abdominal pain, and in some cases nausea and vomiting. Some
E. coli outbreaks have been severe and have even caused deaths in rare instances. The best treatment for an
E. coli–related illness is to get plenty of rest and fluids. But if symptoms are more severe, talk with your pediatrician.
Staphylococcus aureus (Staph)
Staphylococcus aureus contamination is a leading cause of food poisoning. These bacteria ordinarily cause skin infections, such as pimples or boils. They can be transferred when foods when handled by someone who is infected. When food is not kept hot enough, staph bacteria multiply and produce a toxin that ordinary cooking will not destroy. The symptoms begin one to six hours after eating the contaminated food, and usually lasts about a day.
Clostridium perfringens (C. perfringens) is a type of bacteria often found in soil, sewage, and the intestines of humans and animals. It usually is transferred by someone handling food to the food itself, where it multiplies and produces its toxin.
C. perfringens often is found in school cafeterias. This is because it thrives in food that is served in large amounts and left out for long periods at room temperature or on a steam table. Foods most often involved are cooked beef, poultry, gravy, fish, casseroles, stews, and bean burritos. The symptoms of this type of poisoning start six to 24 hours after eating, and can last from one to several days.
Shigella infections, or shigellosis, are intestinal infections caused by one of many types of shigella bacteria. These bacteria can be transmitted through contaminated food and drinking water, as well as through poor hygiene in places such as child care centers. The germ invades the lining of the intestine, and can lead to symptoms such as diarrhea, fever, and cramps. Shigellosis and its symptoms usually start one to three days after exposure, and get better two to three days after the start of symptoms. In the meantime, your child should consume extra fluids. Your pediatrician may also recommend a rehydrating solution. In severe cases, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics, which can shorten the length and intensity of the infection.
Campylobacter is a type of bacteria that can often found in raw or undercooked chicken, unpasteurized milk or contaminated water. Children with
Campylobacter typically have symptoms such as watery (and sometimes bloody) diarrhea, cramps, and fever, about two to five days after consuming contaminated food. To diagnose this infection, your doctor will need a stool sample for laboratory testing. Campylobacter infection usually runs its course without formal treatment, other than making sure that your child drinks plenty of fluids to replace those lost from diarrhea. When symptoms are severe, however, your pediatrician may prescribe antibiotics. In most cases, your child will be back to normal in about two to five days.
This is the rare but serious food poisoning caused by
Clostridium botulinum. These bacteria normally can be found in soil and water. However, they don't often cause illness because they need very special conditions in order to multiply and produce poison. Clostridium botulinum grows best without oxygen and in certain chemical conditions. This is why improperly canned food is most often contaminated, especially low-acid vegetables such as green beans, corn, beets and peas.
Honey also can be contaminated with Clostridium botulinum and cause severe illness, particularly in children under one year of age. That is why honey should never be given to an infant before their first birthday.
Botulism attacks the nervous system and causes double vision, droopy eyelids, decreased muscle tone, and difficulty in swallowing and breathing. It also can cause vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. The symptoms usually develop within 12 to 48 hours and can last weeks to months. In infants, the incubation period may be longer. Without treatment, botulism can be fatal. Even with treatment, it can cause nerve damage.
In very uncommon situations, watery diarrhea, low-grade fever, and abdominal pain may be caused by an infection known as cryptosporidium. This infection is of special concern in children who do not have a normal immune system.
Other sources of food poisoning
Food poisoning may also be caused by poisonous mushrooms, contaminated fish products, and foods with special seasonings. Young children do not care for most of these foods and so will eat very little of them. However, it still is very important to be aware of the risk. If your child has unusual gastrointestinal symptoms, and there is any chance she might have eaten contaminated or poisonous foods, call your pediatrician.
Treatment for food poisoning
Most children with food-borne illnesses will get better on their own after a brief break from eating and drinking. Infants can tolerate three to four hours without food or liquids; older children, six to eight. If your child is still vomiting or her diarrhea has not decreased significantly during this time, be sure to call your pediatrician. Also notify the doctor if your child:
Shows signs of
Has diarrhea with high fever (over 102°F)
Has continuous diarrhea with a large volume of water in the stool, or diarrhea alternating with constipation
May have been poisoned by mushrooms
Suddenly becomes weak, numb, confused, or restless, and feels tingling, acts drunkenly, or has hallucinations or difficulty breathing
Treatment depends on your child's condition and the type of food poisoning. Tell the doctor the symptoms your child is having, what foods she has eaten recently, and where they got them. If your child is dehydrated, fluid replacement is key. Sometimes antibiotics are helpful, but only if the specific bacteria are known. Antihistamines help if the illness is from an allergic reaction to a food, toxin, or seasoning. If your child has botulism, they will need hospitalization and intensive care.
Fortunately, food contamination and food poisoning can be prevented with some basic guidelines. (See "Food-Borne Illness Prevention.") Talk with your pediatrician if you have any concerns about food poisoning, what to do if you notice symptoms, and ways to prevent food-borne illness.