Food poisoning is serious business. There are more than 250 different types of illness that are spread through undercooked or poorly stored food items. and they cause 48 million cases of food poisoning in the United States each year. Of those 250, the four most common are Campylobacter jejuni, the "cafeteria germ" Clostridium perfringens, Salmonella bacteria, and coliform bacteria of a type referred to as O157:H7. Other especially dangerous pathogens sometimes found in food are norovirus, the bacterium that causes listeriosis, and the parasite responsible for toxoplasmosis.
In most cases, regardless of the cause, symptoms of food poisoning follow roughly the same pattern. Most types generally involve nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps, and often fever. It doesn’t necessarily require medical attention except in severe cases, such as when there is visible blood, when there is a fever over 101.5° F, when the symptoms are accompanied by muscle weakness, when symptoms last longer than three days, or when the affected person is having trouble keeping liquids down or is showing signs of dehydration, such as dizziness or lightheadedness.
Unfortunately, while the overlap in symptoms, makes food poisoning easy to identify, it can make the specific kinds of food-borne illness difficult to distinguish. Knowing the source can help—different types of microbes are found in different types of foods—but the delayed onset can make even this difficult. Symptoms of a pathogen may hide for anywhere from 12 to 72 hours after the food is eaten, meaning patients, who tend to blame the most recent meal or the one before it, could be off by as much as three days. That’s why it’s important for people who have food poisoning to think back several days when trying to track down a source. If there is some indication of an outbreak, it may be possible to cross-reference the patient’s illness with other reports and pinpoint contaminated food products which may be responsible.
Even uncontaminated products, however, need to be prepared properly. Cooks who touch raw meat, especially poultry, should wash their hands before touching anything else, or wear gloves and dispose of them before touching anything else. Food should be cooked above 140°. and should not be between 40° and 140° for more than a few minutes.