If you suspect you might have food poisoning, there's a good chance you could be right. Approximately 1 out of 6 Americans contracts food poisoning in a given year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 1.2 million of these cases are due to eating meat contaminated with viruses, bacteria or parasites, notes a March 2013 CDC report. Meat contamination commonly results from improper processing, handling, storage or cooking. Similar signs and symptoms occur with most types of infectious food poisoning caused by bad meat, although the timing and severity varies.
Abdominal Pain and Diarrhea
Symptoms of most types of food poisoning typically occur first and foremost in the digestive system, especially the intestines. Abdominal cramping usually develops first, followed by watery diarrhea. The diarrhea might be bloody, especially if the food poisoning is caused by Shigella, Salmonella, Campylobacter or E. coli bacteria. Contaminated meat is often to blame for these types of food poisoning. Other common accompanying signs and symptoms may include intestinal rumbling or noise, excess gas and abdominal bloating.
Nausea and Vomiting
Nausea, which may be accompanied by vomiting, occurs frequently with certain types of food poisoning, such as cases caused by Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus) bacteria. Nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and diarrhea typically begin within 30 minutes to 6 hours after ingesting meat or other food contaminated with this bacteria. The symptoms are caused by a toxin produced by S. aureus while growing in contaminated food. Food poisoning caused by norovirus also frequently causes nausea and vomiting, along with diarrhea and cramps. Severe diarrhea caused by any type of food poisoning can lead to dehydration, which in turn often triggers nausea and vomiting.
Fever, Headaches and Body Aches
Fever is common with certain types of food poisoning that can occur due to eating bad meat. For example, fever commonly accompanies norovirus, E. coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter and Listeria food poisoning. Fever is notably absent with food poisoning caused by S. aureus and Clostridium perfringens. Headaches may occur, often due to dehydration caused by severe diarrhea. Body aches are uncommon with most types of food poisoning, but are characteristic of listeriosis -- an illness caused by eating food contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.
Other Signs and Symptoms
Some less common signs and symptoms can occur with certain types of food poisoning contracted from eating bad meat. For example, Salmonella, Shigella and Campylobacter intestinal infections sometimes to other areas of the body, such as the bones, joints, urinary tract, bloodstream or nervous system. When this occurs, new symptoms develop specific to the organ or system affected. Food poisoning caused by the hepatitis A virus typically triggers diarrhea along with signs and symptoms caused by liver inflammation, such as pain in the upper right abdomen and yellow discoloration of the skin, called jaundice.
Dehydration caused by diarrhea, vomiting or both when suffering from food poisoning leads to its own set of signs and symptoms, including: -- dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting -- dark urine -- headache -- nausea -- dry mouth -- increased thirst -- rapid or pounding heart rate
Warnings and Precautions
Most cases of food poisoning resolve on their own without specific treatment in about 1 to 10 days, depending on the cause of the illness. However, some people develop severe symptoms or complications. Groups at high risk include young children, seniors, pregnant women and those with a weakened or suppressed immune system -- such as those with HIV/AIDS, organ transplant recipients and people receiving cancer treatment or oral steroids. Contact your doctor as soon as possible if you suspect food poisoning and are in a high-risk group. Seek medical care right away if you develop any signs or symptoms of dehydration. Emergency medical care is needed if you experience warning signs and symptoms, including: -- persistent, severe or worsening abdominal pain -- high fever -- vomiting blood -- bloody, maroon or tarry stools -- a sudden decrease in urine production -- sudden paleness -- weakness, tingling or numbness in your legs -- confusion, extreme drowsiness or mental fogginess
Reviewed and revised by: Tina M. St. John, M.D.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Foodborne Germs and Illnesses
- Emerging Infectious Diseases: Attribution of Foodborne Illnesses, Hospitalizations, and Deaths to Food Commodities by Using Outbreak Data, United States, 1998–2008
- Merck Manual Professional Version: Overview of Gastroenteritis
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Staphylococcal Food Poisoning
- Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett's Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases, 8th Edition; John E. Bennett, et al.