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How Do I Know if I Have a Foodborne Illness?

Foodborne illnesses are a common cause of digestive symptoms. Most of the time, a foodborne illness runs its course within a day or two. It is not always easy to tell if you have a foodborne illness, however. The onset of the bulk of the symptoms may occur as quickly as 30 minutes after ingesting contaminated food, or even hours or days later. For this reason, it can be difficult to track down the offending food unless a cluster of illnesses occur and the source of contamination is tracked down. This sometimes happens and leads to the recall of contaminated foods.

The most common symptoms of foodborne illness are nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain from cramping and possibly a fever. These symptoms are often mistaken for flu symptoms, but the flu is a respiratory virus, not a gastrointestinal virus. The so-called “stomach flu” can be caused by foodborne illness or infections with a couple of viruses that cause inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract. Bloody diarrhea is a sign of a severe foodborne illness and a very good reason to get checked out by a doctor.

If you go to the doctor with symptoms of foodborne illness, they will perform a clinical examination, take vital signs and possibly replace lost fluids intravenously. Laboratory tests such as urine and blood tests may be taken to assess whether there is any kidney or liver damage due to the illness. If a patient is experiencing blood in the stools, an examination to rule out rectal bleeding may be necessary. Sometimes bodily fluids, vomit or stool may be tested for organisms or toxins that can cause foodborne illness. In most cases, however, the cause of the illness is not determined.

It becomes slightly easier to track foodborne illness if an outbreak is reported. An outbreak occurs when two or more people is identified to have a specific foodborne illness from the same source. Outbreaks can be reported to local health departments by individuals or reported by doctors. Health departments may investigate if they notice a rise in the cases of specific foodborne illnesses. Sometimes the investigation leads to identification of the food source and possibly recall of products. Most cases of foodborne illness are not reported or identified, however, because they are isolated and unpredictable.

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