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Food Poisoning - Food Poisoning Symptoms

Symptoms of Childhood Illnesses

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Updated June 03, 2014

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Food poisoning is common.

In 2006, there were just a little more than 25,000 outbreaks of food poisoning reported to the CDC, but many more go undiagnosed because people don't seek treatment and simply get better on their own. All together, experts estimate that there are about 76 million cases of food poisoning each year in the United States.

Food Poisoning Symptoms

Common symptoms of food poisoning can include:

Of course, other things besides food poisoning can cause these same symptoms, making a diagnosis of food poisoning difficult. For example, children can develop diarrhea and vomiting with a viral infection, such as rotavirus or after getting a Salmonella infection from playing with a pet turtle.

You should suspect food poisoning if other people get sick at about the same time and after eating the same foods. Since many infections that cause diarrhea are contagious, just because everyone in the house has diarrhea and vomiting doesn't mean that they all have food poisoning. It is more likely, though, if they all developed symptoms on the same night after a family picnic.

Classic Food Poisoning Symptoms

It is important to keep in mind that there are many different bacteria, viruses and toxins that can cause food poisoning. Although most cause diarrhea and vomiting, they do have some characteristic symptoms that can help you identify what may have caused your sickness, such as:

  • Staphylococcus aureus food poisoning may happen when your child eats food contaminated with an enterotoxin (typically foods left at room temperature for too long), which quickly causes symptoms (within two to seven hours) including vomiting, watery diarrhea and either no fever or a low-grade fever. Fortunately, the symptoms usually go away as quickly as they came on, within 12 to 24 hours.

  • Salmonella food poisoning is fairly well known because of all of the recent Salmonella outbreaks. Symptoms of Salmonella food poisoning usually begin about 6 to 72 hours after exposure to this bacteria and include watery diarrhea, fever, cramping abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting. The symptoms typically last 4 to 7 days and usually go away without treatment.

  • E. coli O157 are a specific type of E. coli bacteria that can cause food poisoning with severe stomach cramps, bloody diarrhea and sometimes a low-grade fever. Although most children with E. coli O157 recover without treatment in 5 to 7 days, some develop a life-threatening condition called "hemolytic uremic syndrome" (HUS). Children can develop E. coli O157 infections about 1 to 10 days after eating contaminated meat products that are undercooked, especially hamburgers. Drinking raw milk, contaminated water and unpasteurized juice and having contact with farm animals are other risk factors.

  • Shigella is another bacteria that can cause bloody diarrhea, in addition to stomach cramps and high fever. Children can develop a Shigella infection (Shigellosis) about 1 or 2 days after eating food that has been contaminated with the Shigella bacteria, such as potato salad, milk, chicken and raw vegetables. Unlike most other causes of food poisoning, Shigellosis can be treated with antibiotics, although most of these infections do go away on their own in 5 to 7 days.

  • Campylobacter food poisoning is often associated with eating undercooked chicken and drinking raw milk, with symptoms developing about 2 to 5 days after exposure. Symptoms can include watery diarrhea, fever, abdominal cramps, nausea, muscle aches and headaches. Although symptoms usually go away in 7 to 10 days on their own, treatment with the antibiotic erythromycin reduces how long people are contagious.

  • Clostridium perfringens food poisoning is another bacteria that produces a toxin in food. Symptoms begin 8 to 22 hours after eating contaminated food, especially meats and gravy that are not prepared or stored properly, and include watery diarrhea and intense abdominal cramps, which can linger for about 24 hours.

  • Clostridium botulinum food poisoning or botulism, which produces spores and toxins that can contaminate vegetables and other foods that are preserved and canned at home, honey (which is why infants aren't supposed to eat honey) and some other foods. In addition to nausea, vomiting and abdominal cramps, children with botulism can have neurological symptoms, such as double vision, slurred speech, trouble swallowing and muscle weakness. Infants may have weakness, constipation and poor feeding. In both older children and infants, the muscle weakness can even affect their ability to breath.

  • Hepatitis A is a viral cause of food poisoning. Unlike most of the other causes of food poisoning, it is the only one for which there is a vaccine (kids get it starting at age 12 months) that can prevent it. Children can develop symptoms of Hepatitis A 10 to 50 days after eating contaminated water, vegetables, shellfish and foods contaminated by restaurant workers.

  • Bacillus cereus food poisoning leads to watery diarrhea and abdominal cramps about 6 to 15 hours after eating contaminated food, including meats, fish, vegetables and milk. Contaminated rice typically causes nausea and vomiting, but not diarrhea. With either type of symptoms, they usually go away in about 24 hours without treatment.

  • Norwalk virus is another virus that can cause food poisoning and is often associated with cruise ships. Children can develop Norwalk virus food poisoning after drinking contaminated water or eating contaminated food, including shellfish, salad ingredients, raw clams, raw oysters and other foods contaminated by sick restaurant workers.

In addition to looking for classic symptoms, your pediatrician may be able to diagnose these types of food poisoning with specific tests, which typically include stool cultures and other stool tests.

Sources:

Kliegman: Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics, 18th ed.

Long: Principles and Practice of Pediatric Infectious Diseases, 3rd ed.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration Foodborne Pathogenic Microorganisms and Natural Toxins Handbook.

CDC. 2006 Annual Listing of Foodborne Disease Outbreaks, United States.

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