Food poisoning is the term the general public tends to use when speaking of illnesses caused by eating food that made them ill. A large number of bacteria, viruses, and parasites can cause food poisoning. If you consume food products that contain these germs, you could become seriously ill and this infection can trigger sepsis.
Sepsis, which was often called blood poisoning, is the body’s life-threatening response to infection. Sepsis kills and disables millions and requires early suspicion and treatment for survival. Sepsis and septic shock can result from an infection anywhere in the body, such as pneumonia, influenza, or urinary tract infections. Worldwide, one-third of people who develop sepsis die. Like strokes or heart attacks, sepsis is a medical emergency that requires rapid diagnosis and treatment. Many who do survive are left with life-changing effects, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), chronic pain and fatigue, organ dysfunction (organs don’t work properly), and/or amputations.
Food poisoning causes
The most common germs that cause food poisoning are:
- Norovirus: Most people who have heard of norovirus likely think of it as an illness that passes from person to person, particularly among children. However, this virus can also spread through contaminated food and water. It causes 58% of foodborne illnesses each year in the United States, causing between 19 million and 21 million cases of acute gastroenteritis and up to 800 deaths per year. Contaminated leafy greens (such as lettuce), fresh fruit, and shellfish cause most outbreaks.
- Salmonella: Over 1 million people in the U.S. each year contract salmonella poisoning from food. It causes almost 400 deaths per year. This infection is often the result of consuming contaminated raw meat, poultry, and seafood.
- Clostridium perfringens: This strain of infection also affects about 1 million people in the U.S. each year. It is found most often in foods like beef, poultry, and pre-cooked foods. It can also be found in dried foods. Outbreaks of this bacteria are most frequently in areas where large amounts of food are prepared. This includes cafeterias or catering facilities.
- Campylobacter: Another foodborne illness that affects over 1 million people in the U.S. each year, campylobacter, is most often contracted by eating raw or undercooked poultry, consuming unpasteurized milk or contaminated water, or by touching these products and not washing your hands.
- Staphylococcus aureus: This particular bacteria is quite common and many of us have the bacteria on our skin and in our nose, without any illness. However, if you carry Staphylococcus aureus and you don’t wash your hands thoroughly before handling food, the bacteria could multiply and cause serious illness to others. The products most likely to spread this germ include salads (especially if they have prepared meats, such as ham and chicken), dairy products, and eggs.
The following four germs are not as common as the food poisoning causes, but they cause the most serious illnesses:
- Clostridium botulinum (botulism): Up to 200 people per year in the U.S. develop botulism, less than 50 of them from food. The bacteria live in the soil where the food grows. The bacteria can grow if food is not processed and canned (or bottled) safely. This produces a toxin. Botulism is a particular concern with home canning.
- Listeria: Listeria poisoning, called listeriosis, only affects about 1,600 people in the U.S. each year, but over 250 die from it. Contracting this infection during pregnancy may not cause serious illness, but it can cause serious complications for the fetus. Listeria may be found in prepared meats, unrefrigerated foods (such as meat spreads), unpasteurized cheeses, and raw sprouts.
- Escherichia coli (E. coli). E. coli is an infection that often hits the news when there is an outbreak. The bacteria itself is all around us and most are harmless. However, there are two types that can cause serious illness. You can learn more about E. coli at Sepsis and Intestinal E. Coli Infections.
- Vibrio: Vibrio causes vibriosis, affecting about 80,000 people in the U.S. each year, causing about 100 deaths. It can spread if you have an open wound exposed to contaminated sea water. But it is a foodborne illness as well, caused by consuming raw or undercooked seafood.
Preventing food poisoning
We can’t prevent all infections, including food poisoning. But you can reduce your risk by following these tips:
- Cook all meat thoroughly, particularly ground beef or mechanically tenderized meat.
- Don’t eat raw or undercooked eggs
- Don’t reuse cutting boards or utensils after using them for meat products before washing them in hot, soapy water.
- Drink only pasteurized milk and eat pasteurized dairy products.
- Wash all fruits and vegetables thoroughly.
- Wash your hands thoroughly, especially after touching animals and before and after handling food.
To reduce the risk of contracting infections while in countries where the bacteria are more common:
- Drink bottled water and use bottled water to brush your teeth
- Do not eat undercooked foods.
- Do not use ice cubes made with tap water
- Eat fruits that you can peel yourself
- Wash your hands frequently
The most common symptoms of foodborne illnesses are abdominal cramping, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. If you experience any of these symptoms and they worsen instead of improve, or if you see fresh blood in your stools, contact your doctor immediately or go the the closest emergency department.
Watch for signs of sepsis. The earlier we recognize and treat sepsis, the better the outcome. Think TIME for the most basic of symptoms. If your loved one is showing a combination of these symptoms, contact your doctor, go to the emergency room, or call 911, and say, “I suspect sepsis.”
To learn more about the different conditions that could increase your risk of developing sepsis, please visit the Sepsis and… library.
Would you like to share your story about sepsis or read about others who have had sepsis? Please visit Faces of Sepsis, where you will find hundreds of stories from survivors and tributes to those who died from sepsis.
If you suspect sepsis, call 9-1-1 or go to a hospital and tell your medical professional, “I AM CONCERNED ABOUT SEPSIS.”
Updated April 20, 2023.