Diarrhea: Food Poisoning or Infection?
Medical Author: Jay W. Marks, MD
Medical Editor: William C. Shiel, Jr, FACP, FACR
Food poisoning is a general term that refers to gastrointestinal illnesses (usually diarrhea and/or vomiting) caused by food that is contaminated with bacteria, parasites, viruses, or toxic substances. The actual cause of most individual episodes of food poisoning, however, never is pursued (for example, a culture is not done) since most episodes are mild or moderate in severity and are over in a few hours to a few days. In fact, the diagnosis of food poisoning usually is made only presumptively, based on the individual's symptoms and the circumstances. Even in outbreaks of suspected food poisoning that involve many people, when careful studies are done, a specific cause is found no more than half of the time.