Foodborne illness can occur if you eat foods that are contaminated with harmful pathogens such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi.

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The World Health Organization estimates that 1 in 10 people worldwide develop a foodborne illness each year. That’s equivalent to 600 million new cases per year.

In the United States, however, the annual infection rate is slightly higher, with an estimated 1 in 6 people experiencing a foodborne illness each year.

Some foodborne illnesses are mild, whereas others can lead to long-term health complications or death if left untreated.

Although people may use the terms “foodborne illness” and “food poisoning” interchangeably, there are minor differences between the two.

“Foodborne illness” is an umbrella term that describes any illness caused by consuming foods or beverages contaminated with harmful pathogens — such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi — or their toxins.

A foodborne illness may be due to an infection or intoxication.

A foodborne infection can occur if you eat foods that contain live bacteria or other pathogens. These pathogens can later grow in your gut and cause symptoms such as abdominal cramping, diarrhea, and vomiting.

On the other hand, intoxication — also called food poisoning — can happen if you consume foods containing toxins that harmful pathogens release. The live pathogens themselves do not need to be present in the food.

Therefore, food poisoning is a type of foodborne illness.

Foodborne illnesses may result from any of the following sources:

  • Bacteria: These may be present in raw and undercooked meat, fish, and poultry; unpasteurized dairy products; contaminated fruits and vegetables; and contaminated drinking water.
  • Viruses: Viruses are transmitted to the body through food contaminated by viral particles.
  • Parasites: Contaminated water and soil can transmit harmful parasites to fresh produce, seafood, meat, poultry, and other foods.
  • Prions: These infectious proteins are associated with “mad cow disease” and can come from eating parts of cattle, such as the brain tissue.
  • Naturally occurring chemicals: Naturally occurring toxins in mushrooms, staple foods such as corn and cereal, and mold on grains can cause long-term health complications.
  • Environmental pollutants: Byproducts of plastic production and waste management, as well as heavy metals such as lead and mercury found in water and soil, can contaminate foods and lead to foodborne illnesses.

Here are some common foodborne illnesses and their symptoms. Symptoms may take anywhere from 1 week to several months to develop.

TypeFood sourcesSymptomsDuration
Campylobacteriosisbacteria• raw or undercooked poultry, seafood, and meat
• contaminated drinking water
• bloody diarrhea
• fever
• stomach cramps
1 week
Giardiasisparasitefood and drinking water contaminated with feces• dehydration
• flatulence (gas)
• nausea
• vomiting
• diarrhea
2–6 weeks
Norovirusvirusfoods harvested with feces-contaminated water (fruits, vegetables, oysters)• diarrhea
• nausea
• vomiting
• stomach cramps
2 weeks
Escherichia colibacteria• contaminated drinking water
• vegetables
• ground meat products
• raw milk
• stomach cramps
• diarrhea
• vomiting
• fever
5–7 days
Toxoplasmosisparasiteundercooked or contaminated pork, lamb, venison, and shellfish• muscle pain and aches
• blurred visions
• eye pain
• miscarriage
weeks to months
Listeriosisbacteria• soft cheeses
• fruits
• vegetables
• deli meat
• hot dogs
• diarrhea
• vomiting
• fever
• muscle aches
• fatigue
• headache
• loss of balance
days to weeks
Botulismbacteria toxin• improperly canned, preserved and fermented foods
• honey
• muscle weakness
• difficulty swallowing
• difficulty breathing
• impaired vision
several weeks
Anisakiasisparasiteraw or undercooked fish and squid• abdominal pain and bloating
• nausea
• vomiting
• anaphylaxis
3 weeks

Stay abreast of the latest foodborne illness outbreaks

The Current Outbreak List from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides updated information regarding national foodborne illness events and infectious disease travel notices.

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Treatment for foodborne illnesses may involve a combination of at-home remedies and over-the-counter and prescription medications.

However, the types of medications that healthcare professionals prescribe will depend on the type of pathogen responsible for the foodborne illness and the severity of symptoms. Severe cases may require hospitalization.

A healthcare professional may recommend that you:

  • drink extra fluids to stay hydrated if you have diarrhea or vomiting
  • get extra rest if you are feeling fatigued
  • take antibiotics, if prescribed
  • take antitoxin as administered
  • consider surgery for some parasitic and toxic cases

Preventing foodborne illness is an important public health task. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the CDC have issued food safety guidelines to help you avoid becoming sick with a foodborne illness.

They recommend:

  • Washing your hands: Wash your hands often and thoroughly with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds before and after handling raw or cooked foods, using the bathroom, handling pets, or tending to anyone who is ill.
  • Cleaning items well: Clean food surfaces, utensils, and cutting boards with hot, soapy water after each use. Learn how to clean your wooden cutting board.
  • Separating foods: Keep raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs separate from cooked and ready-to-eat foods, including fruits and vegetables, to avoid cross contamination.
  • Cooking food thoroughly: Cook foods to a safe internal temperature to avoid undercooking and reduce foodborne illness risk. Use this detailed cooking temperature list to guide you.
  • Avoiding raw beverages: Avoid drinking raw and unpasteurized dairy and juice products.
  • Storing food properly: Keep foods out of the temperature danger zone of 40–140°F (5–60℃) by thawing frozen food safely in the refrigerator and refrigerating foods within 2 hours of cooking.
  • Isolating when you’re sick: Stay at home if you’re feeling unwell and avoid preparing food for others during this time, even for several days after your symptoms have subsided.

A foodborne illness can occur if you consume foods or beverages contaminated with harmful pathogens — such as bacteria, viruses, or fungi — or their toxins. Food poisoning is a type of foodborne illness caused by ingesting toxins in foods.

Foodborne illnesses may result from consuming raw, undercooked, or contaminated meat, seafood, poultry, fruits, vegetables, canned goods, or drinking water.

Illnesses may resolve within days or months, depending on the type of pathogen and the severity of the illness. Healthcare professionals may treat these illnesses with a combination of at-home remedies and over-the-counter or prescription medications.

You can reduce your chance of contracting foodborne illnesses by washing your hands, food preparation surfaces, utensils, and cutting boards often with warm, soapy water; separating raw foods from cooked foods; and storing foods properly.