What Are the Five Major Foodborne Illnesses?

Reviewed on 9/10/2021

Foodborne illnesses (food poisoning) are caused by consuming contaminated foods. There are more than 250 foodborne illnesses, and the top five include norovirus, <i>Salmonella</i>, <i>Clostridium perfringens</i>, <i>Campylobacter</i>, and <i>Staphylococcus aureus</i> (Staph).
Foodborne illnesses (food poisoning) are caused by consuming contaminated foods. There are more than 250 foodborne illnesses, and the top five include norovirus, Salmonella, Clostridium perfringens, Campylobacter, and Staphylococcus aureus (Staph).

Foodborne illness (also called food poisoning) is an illness that occurs within hours to days after consuming contaminated foods.

There are more than 250 foodborne illnesses, caused by a wide variety of contaminants in food, such as: 

  • Infections
  • Toxins
  • Chemicals 

The top five germs that cause foodborne illness in the United States are:

Less frequent causes of foodborne illness may include: 

These germs and substances can contaminate food in different ways:

  • Sick people can spread germs to food they cook if they do not wash their hands before touching or preparing food
  • Germs can live in or on food
    • If food is not washed or cooked properly, germs in or on the food can infect people
  • Germs from one food can contaminate other foods
    • For example, if a person uses the same cutting board or knife to prepare different foods 

Risk factors for developing foodborne illness include: 

What Are Symptoms of Foodborne Illnesses?

Symptoms of foodborne illnesses can range from mild to severe and even life-threatening and may include:  

Symptoms may occur within hours to days after eating contaminated food. 

When to See the Doctor

See a doctor if you have severe symptoms of foodborne illnesses such as:

  • More than six runny bowel movements in 24 hours
  • Diarrhea lasting more than three days
  • Bloody diarrhea
  • Blood in vomit
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • High fever (oral temperature over 101.3°F/38.5°C) that does not go away after one day
  • Frequent vomiting and inability to keep liquids down, which can lead to dehydration
  • Confusion
  • Urine that is very yellow, or not needing to urinate for more than five hours
  • Rash or blisters on skin

Young children and adults over 70 years who have symptoms of foodborne illness should also see a doctor because these groups can become dehydrated more easily.

How Are Foodborne Illnesses Diagnosed?

Foodborne illnesses are usually diagnosed with a patient history and a physical examination. 

Testing is usually not needed but may be indicated to check if a patient is dehydrated or to determine which germ caused the food poisoning. Tests may include: 

  • Blood tests
  • Stool tests 



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What Is the Treatment for Foodborne Illnesses?

Most of the time, the foodborne illness goes away on its own without medical treatment. Home remedies to ease symptoms of food poisoning include:

  • Drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration
  • Eat small meals that do not have a lot of fat in them
  • Rest
  • Over-the-counter (OTC) anti-diarrheal medicines 
    • Loperamide (Diamode, Imodium)
    • Diphenoxylate-atropine (Lomotil)
    • Bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol, Kaopectate). 
      • Do not take loperamide or if you have a fever or blood in your bowel movements
      • Talk to your doctor before trying loperamide; taking too much loperamide has led to serious heart problems in some people
      • Follow label instructions for anti-diarrheal medicines and do not take more than indicated on the label
      • Children should not take anti-diarrhea medicines

People who have severe symptoms may require medical treatment, such as: 

  • Intravenous (IV) fluids to treat or prevent dehydration
  • Antibiotics to treat bacterial infections
  • Prescription anti-diarrheal medication
    • Diphenoxylate-atropine (Lomotil)
      • Do not take diphenoxylate-atropine if you have a fever or blood in your bowel movements

How Do You Prevent Foodborne Illnesses?

Foodborne illnesses can be prevented with four simple steps recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC): 

  • Clean
    • Wash hands and surfaces often including after changing diapers, going to the bathroom, blowing your nose, touching animals, or taking out the trash
    • Wash hands for 20 seconds with soap and water before, during, and after preparing food and before eating
    • Wash utensils, cutting boards, and countertops with hot, soapy water
    • Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under running water
  • Separate
    • Don't cross-contaminate foods
    • Separate raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs from vegetables, fruits, and other foods
      • Use separate cutting boards and plates 
      • Keep these items and their juices away from other foods in grocery carts
      • Keep these items and their juices separate from other foods in the fridge
  • Cook
    • Cook foods to the proper temperature
    • Use a food thermometer and cook to: 
      • 145°F (62.8°C) for 
        • Whole cuts of beef, pork, veal, and lamb 
        • For fresh ham (raw)
        • Fin fish or cook until flesh is opaque
      • 160°F (71.1°C) for ground meats, such as beef and pork
      • 165°F (73.9°C) for
        • All poultry, including ground chicken and turkey
        • Leftovers and casseroles
  • Chill
    • Refrigerate food promptly 
    • Keep the refrigerator at 40°F (4.4°C) or below
    • Never leave perishable food out for more than 2 hours (or 1 hour if it’s hotter than 90°F/32.2°C outside) 
    • Thaw frozen food in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in the microwave
    • Never thaw foods on the counter

If you are sick, stay home from work or school until you feel better.

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Reviewed on 9/10/2021