The Basics on Foodborne Illness

By the team at Owly, Jul 22nd 2018

Bacteria, viruses, or parasites can all cause foodborne illness. A couple of times a year, foodborne illness makes the front page of the news. A product’s recalled; people are hospitalized; there are a number of deaths. Children, sick people, and the elderly are particularly vulnerable to foodborne illness and are disproportionately affected by the dangerous bacterias that can lurk on nearly any food.

The signs and symptoms that a victim of foodborne illness experiences depend on the type of bacteria that they’ve ingested. Typically, a foodborne illness will resemble the intestinal flu. Specifically, some potential indicators  of a foodborne illness are:

  • An upset stomach
  • Diarrhea
  • Fever
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Dehydration
  • Blood or pus in the stools
  • Headache
  • Severe exhaustion
  • Severe illness

Symptoms can start within a half hour of eating the contaminated food or they can take days or weeks to appear. Usually, a foodborne illness will only last for a day or two, but depending on the strain of bacteria and the condition of the victim, in some cases the disease can persist for a week to ten days.

Bacteria are the usual culprits of foodborne illness. Bacterial contamination of foods can occur at any step in the process: during growing, harvesting, processing, storing, shipping, final preparation, serving, or eating. Bacteria causing foodborne illnesses are typically undetectable—they don’t produce an “off” odor, color, or texture, and refrigerating or freezing the food will only slow or stop the bacteria’s growth rather than destroying it. Therefore, the only way to truly prevent you and your loved one from contracting a foodborne illness is to follow safe food handling procedures. In particular, there are four types of foodborne bacteria that you want to be aware of due to their severe effects.


Though less common than other bacteria that cause foodborne illnesses, Listeria is by far the most fatal. A study by FoodNet found that the risk of contracting a Listeria infection dramatically increases with age, with adults 85 and older 54 times more likely to fall ill than people aged 15 to 44. Typical signs of foodborne illness aren’t usually present with Listeriosis, the disease caused by the Listeria bacteria. Since few symptoms are initially present, people can remain unaware that they’ve contracted the disease for long periods of time. It’s eventually discovered when a more serious condition surfaces such as meningitis or septicemia. For the elderly, Listeriosis can be particularly deadly; by the time it’s detected, it can be extremely difficult for the immune system to recover from the severity of the infection.  

E. coli

There are several strains of E. coli. Although one strain lives without problem in our intestines, other strains, especially E. coli O157:H7, are much more dangerous to our health. E. coli infections have been common within the last decade, since cow feces that contain the bacteria can easily contaminate crops that are shipped nationwide. Although healthy adults can recover from an E. coli 0157:H7 infection within a week, people with weakened immune systems like seniors can develop a potentially fatal form of kidney failure in which toxic substances destroy the red blood cells in the body. This condition, called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) typically lasts between one and 15 days and is deadly in 3 to 5 percent of cases. Symptoms of HUS include fever, lethargy, irritability, and pallor. In approximately half of the cases, the disease progresses into acute renal failure. The reduced blood flow to organs can further lead to multiple organ failure. Visit the GI Society’s page “Bacteria and Foodborne Illness” to read the complete list of symptoms. If your loved one presents any signs of HUS, bring them to the emergency room.


Salmonella is the most prevalent bacteria causing foodborne illness in the United States. There are nearly  2,500 different strains. One in 20,000 eggs risks the presence of Salmonella inside the shell. Lettuce, tomatoes, sprouts, and melons are similarly vulnerable to contamination and turtles, lizards, and other reptiles can carry the bacteria on their shells.  Cooking poultry and eggs to 165°F will kill the bacteria, but any raw juices can still contaminate anything they come into contact with. Pasteurization also kills Salmonella, which is why seniors should always avoid unpasteurized products. Most people completely recover from a salmonella infection, but occasionally it can result in serious complications such as Reactive Arthritis. A study by FoodNet found that people 60 years and older experienced the highest hospitalization rates from Salmonella and that 45 percent of deaths caused by the Salmonella bacteria were people in this age group.

Staph bacteria

Staph bacteria can cause serious skin and respiratory infections such as pneumonia that can be especially difficult for seniors to recover from. Worse, MRSA, a kind of antibiotic-resistant staph, is even harder to treat, and can often be deadly for the elderly. The increasing presence of MRSA suggests that livestock are become resistant to the antibiotics they’re fed before slaughter that aim to prevent foodborne contamination. A study by the Translational Genomics Research Institute discovered that in 96% of meats contaminated with staph bacteria, the bacteria were resistant to at least one type of antibiotic, and 53 percent were resistant to three or more types.

So what can you and your loved one do to protect yourselves?

First, read last week’s article “The Basic Steps for Food Safety.” There, you’ll learn the proper ways to shop for, prepare, consume, and store foods to mitigate the chances of contamination.

Next, pay very close attention to the recall announcements online, in the news, and posted at grocery stores. Don’t buy any product that has been identified as a potential source of contamination. Do your research and find out where your produce is from. Between 4-6% of foodborne illnesses can be traced back to an specific food item from a particular farm or region. If you’re purchasing produce that’s been shipped from other countries, it might not be subject to the same safety standards as food grown in the United States, so be aware that regulations may be more lax.

If you suspect that your loved one has contracted a foodborne illness:

#1: Seek treatment for your loved one immediately.

  • Contact your loved one’s physician or health care provider and determine the best steps forward.
  • If your loved one’s condition is quickly deteriorating or there are signs that they are in life-threatening danger, call 9-1-1 and have them admitted to Emergency Medical Services.

#2: Preserve the contaminated food.

  • If a portion of the suspected food is available, place it in a Ziploc bag, label it with “DANGER,” and freeze it or bring it with you to the emergency room.
  • The evidence may be used to diagnose your loved one’s illness and to prevent others from becoming ill.

#3: Save all the packaging materials that came with the contaminated food.

  • Take note of the type of food, the date and time your loved one ate the food, and the time at which you first noticed symptoms. Ask them to try, to the best of their ability, to recall as many of the foods and drinks they’ve consumed in the last week and bring the list to your loved one’s physician.
  • Save any identical unopened products, being sure to label them with a “DANGER” warning, and put them in the freezer.
  • If the suspected food was a USDA-inspected meat, poultry, or egg product, direct any questions and complaints to the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline, 1-888-MPHotline (188-674-6854). For all other foods, call the FDA office of Emergency Operations at 1-866-300-4374 or 301-796-8240.

#4: Call your local health department

  • Call your local health department if you believe that the contaminated food was eaten in a restaurant, large gathering, or at another food establishment
  • Also call the local health department if the food was a commercial product.
  • The health department staff will determine whether an investigation of the business is warranted.
  • To locate your local health department, visit Health Guide USA.

Most foodborne illnesses are mild in nature and are treated by increasing fluid intake either orally or intravenously. In more severe situations, the patient might require hospitalization to receive individualized diagnosis and treatment. Remember to always make food safety a priority when eating with your loved one. If you’re eating with them at their nursing home, you’re at a social gathering, you’re out at a restaurant, or you’re simply cooking with your loved one, if something seems suspicious, let them know and take care! Your assistance and knowledge could make all the difference.

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