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Is It Really Food Poisoning?

It could be intolerance to a certain food, or just stomach irritation.
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WebMD Feature

You enjoyed every bite of the pasta alfredo, flame-grilled burger, or creme brulee but hours later you're sprinting, nonstop, to the bathroom.

After vomiting or having diarrhea, you may not be thinking kindly of the restaurant or your BBQ host, figuring you have food poisoning.

But is it really? Your upset stomach could be caused by a food intolerance or irritation -- your GI tract and creme brulee simply don't get along.

In the U.S., about 76 million people get sick each year from food-borne illnesses, and more than 300,000 are hospitalized, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although food-related illness is often short and mild, it can sometimes be life-threatening. About 5,000 people in the U.S. die each year from food-borne illnesses.

Figuring out if food-related problems are indeed food poisoning isn't always easy, not even for doctors. Here’s how to tell, and how to determine if you need medical help.

What Is Food Poisoning?

''Food poisoning is a non-medical term," says Jay Solnick, MD, professor of medicine and an infectious disease specialist at the University of California Davis School of Medicine. But it typically means bacteria in the food made you sick.

A range of organisms and toxins that can cause food poisoning, including Campylobacter, Salmonella,Shigella, E. coli 0157: H7, Listeria, and botulism.

Certain foods are considered "high risk" for food poisoning, says David Burkhart, MD, staff physician at the Indiana University Health Center in Bloomington, who has published a scientific article on the topic.

High-risk foods include: dairy products, raw seafood, raw eggs, lunch meat, undercooked meat, and poultry. "Those are some of the major foods that oftentimes will be contaminated," Burkhart says.

Symptoms of food poisoning vary, but typically include vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. Fever can occur, too. The severity of symptoms, as well as the symptoms themselves, varies.

Some people have fever, others don't, Solnick says. Abdominal pain can be mild or severe.

What Else Can Cause Nausea and Vomiting?

Sometimes, bacteria are blamed unfairly, Solnick and other experts say. "You can be intolerant of something," Solnick says. For instance, those with lactose intolerance have trouble digesting the lactose sugar found in milk. Those who are gluten sensitive have intolerance to wheat.

You could also have a stomach virus or gastroenteritis, a condition that leads to irritation and inflammation of the stomach and intestines triggered by infection, says Jason Dees, DO, a family physician in New Albany, Miss., and a member of the board of directors of the American Academy of Family Physicians.

"With food poisoning and gastroenteritis, the symptoms can look like each other," Dees says. "Differentiating the two can be really difficult."

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