7 Worst Food Bugs That Can Make You Sick
Advertisement
Advertisement

7 Worst Food Bugs That Can Make You Sick

Find out the most common causes of food poisoning and how to avoid them.

1 / 9

By Liem Ho

Every year thousands of pounds of food products are recalled due to fears of contamination, or the discovery of an organism that can make consumers sick. But that’s not all: Improperly cooking and storing food at home can also lead to a bad case of food poisoning. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately one in six Americans is sickened by food poisoning each year.

Symptoms can range from mild to severe—and in some cases life-threatening. Those at greatest risk for serious complications are infants/children, the elderly and people with compromised auto immune systems.

Depending on the organism, symptoms can start from an hour to two days but usually six to eight hours after eating the contaminated food. Usually minor symptoms improve on their own, within 48 hours of onset. But if you think you have food poisoning and symptoms persist for more than two or three days, contact your healthcare provider. Your healthcare provider may make a diagnosis just by the history of your illness but may sometimes need to run some tests like a stool culture. If a bacterial infection is suspected, an antibiotic may be prescribed.

We asked Ken Szwak, PA-C from Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center in Camden, New Jersey, about common bugs, symptoms and how to avoid them.

Salmonella

2 / 9 Salmonella

“Of all bacterial illness that are food related, the most common is salmonella,” says Szwak. The bacteria live in the intestines of animals, birds and people—and infection occurs when someone eats food contaminated by feces. How does that happen? Salmonella is typically found in raw poultry and meat—and feces can get on these foods during the butchering process. Other prime candidates include eggs and raw produce such as melons and alfalfa sprouts, particularly those imported from other countries. Salmonella spreads to produce when it’s watered in the field or washed during processing with water contaminated by the bacteria.

Salmonella symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting and abdominal cramps; it usually resolves itself. In severe cases where hospitalization is required and/or sepsis develops, antibiotics are recommended, as with at-risk populations (infants, the elderly or those with compromised immune systems).

Onset: 6-48 hours after infection 
Duration: 4-7 days

E. coli

3 / 9 E. coli

While there is good E. coli that lives in your intestines and helps with digestion, there are also types of this bacterium that can make you sick. “Certain strains of E. coli can be found in undercooked ground beef and produce that hasn’t been properly prepared, handled, or has had exposure to contaminated water during shipping,” says Szwak. While the symptoms of E. coli infection are typical of any food poisoning, in severe cases with certain strains people—especially children and the elderly—can develop kidney problems. E. coli, also known as “traveler’s diarrhea,” may resolve on its own with rehydration and can also be treated with antibiotics.

Onset: 1-8 days after infection
Duration: 5-10 days

Listeria

4 / 9 Listeria

This food bug is caused by consumption of contaminated raw foods, ready-to-eat deli meats and soft cheeses as well as foods made from unpasteurized milk. This bacterium can even grow in colder, refrigerated temperatures, making it different from other food germs. A key way of prevention is to avoid eating and drinking foods made with unpasteurized milk and to heat ready-to-eat foods and leftovers until they’re piping hot. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, listeria is the third leading cause of death from food poisoning; it’s responsible for about 260 deaths per year in the US. Most people who contract listeria need to be hospitalized.

Onset: 9-48 hours after infection for intestinal symptoms
Duration: Varies

Norovirus

5 / 9 Norovirus

 “When people present concerned about having food poisoning, a vast majority of the time it’s due to a virus. Norovirus and many others may or may not be related to eating contaminated foods,” says Szwak. Viruses like the norovirus, rotavirus, astrovirus and enteric adenovirus are highly contagious; breakouts typically occur in hospitals, cruise ships, nursing homes, restaurants and other food service settings when infected employees touch foods with their bare hands before serving them. Unfortunately, the virus is very resilient and can live on contaminated surfaces, such as counter tops, for days or weeks.

When someone in the family comes down with a norovirus infection, it can easily make its rounds since the germs are passed through direct contact—eating the same food, sharing plates and utensils and caring for a person sickened by the virus. Common symptoms include nausea, frequent vomiting and watery diarrhea. If you contract the virus, drink liquids as much as possible to avoid dehydration. And since these are viruses, antibiotics won’t help; it will need to run its course. In some cases where dehydration is severe, hospital admission for IV fluids may be needed.

Onset: between 12-48 hours after infection
Duration: 12 hours to 8 days depending on which virus

Staphylococcus Enterotoxin

6 / 9 Staphylococcus Enterotoxin

There are many different kinds of staphylococcus infections, most commonly skin, but when it comes to food, the enterotoxin created by the staph bacteria is what causes gastroenteritis. “You tend to find this bacteria in eggs, dairy products and cold cuts that are not just undercooked but also stored too long at room temperature,” says Szwak. Picnics can be staphylococcus heaven if potato and egg salads and meats are left out long enough While the bacteria can multiply in unrefrigerated foods, any heat—even from being left out—kills the bacteria itself. But it doesn’t destroy the heat-resistant toxin, which is the actual cause of the illness.

Onset: 30 minutes-6 hours after infection
Duration: 24 hours

Botulism

7 / 9 Botulism

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, foodborne botulism is a serious illness that causes paralysis of the respiratory muscles, arms, legs and trunk. It is typically transmitted through homemade foods that have not been properly canned or preserved. Contamination from store-bought foods is less common, although in one 2017 case nine people were hospitalized and one died after eating contaminated nacho cheese sauce bought at a gas station in California. Symptoms of botulism include slurred speech, blurred vision, droopy eyelids, dry mouth and difficulty swallowing. Those who contract botulism require immediate medical attention; it is fatal in approximately five percent of cases.

Onset: Typically 18-36 hours after infection, although symptoms may present as early as six hours and as late as 10 days after eating the contaminated food.
Duration: In severe cases breathing may be impaired and intensive medical care required for several months; others may experience fatigue and shortness of breath for years. 

Giardia

8 / 9 Giardia

Giardia is in a class of its own when it comes to food poisoning. Neither a bacterium nor a virus, giardia is a parasite commonly contracted by drinking contaminated water. Eating raw produce that has been watered or washed with contaminated water during processing can also pass it. Cooking kills the parasite, so food transmission is less of a problem, unless food handlers with giardiasis don’t thoroughly wash their hands.

“For those going swimming, traveling to less developed countries for vacation, or going hiking or camping, be conscious of the cleanliness of your water supply,” advises Szwak. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some people don’t have any symptoms. But those who do may experience diarrhea, abdominal cramps, nausea and greasy stool that floats. It may lead to weight loss. If you think you have giardia, contact your healthcare provider; there are prescription drugs that can treat it. 

Food bug prevention

9 / 9 Food bug prevention

According to Szwak, there is no 100 percent effective way to prevent food poisoning, but you can reduce your chances of contracting it by cooking your food completely. When it comes to foods like vegetables and fruit, which is often consumed raw, be sure to thoroughly wash it before eating. Leafy vegetables should be washed more than once to make sure dirt and other particles that get caught in the leaves are removed. Also avoid sharing plates, utensils and drinking glasses with others, especially those with gastroenteritis symptoms. “The number one thing you can do is wash your hands with soap and warm water to prevent the spread of germs,” says Szwak.