Symptoms of Foodborne Illness

Do foodborne illnesses cause symptoms in otherwise healthy individuals?

Individuals infected with a foodborne illness may experience a wide range of symptoms, which can vary greatly in their severity. Symptoms may appear almost immediately or several days after ingestion of contaminated food and may last for a matter of hours or up to six months. A common diagnosis for the symptoms of foodborne illness is gastroenteritis. Some people with a foodborne illness will not have any signs or symptoms.

What are the most common symptoms of foodborne illness?

The type and duration of symptoms will depend on a variety of factors, including the illness contracted. The following is a list of the most common symptoms of many foodborne illnesses:

  • mild to severe diarrhea (may be bloody)
  • abdominal cramping and/or pain
  • tenesmus (straining to have bowel movements)
  • fever
  • fatigue
  • loss of appetite
  • nausea
  • dark urine
  • jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)
  • muscle aches
  • stiff neck
  • confusion
  • loss of balance
  • convulsions
  • mild, flu-like illness
  • vomiting
  • chills
How will I know if my symptoms are a result of foodborne illness?

It can be difficult to know if your symptoms are due to foodborne illness or to another cause. Some of the foodborne symptoms are headache, fever and vomiting, which can be attributed to the flu or other illnesses.

Sometimes, when family members, work colleagues or individuals with whom you’ve had contact have the flu, that may indicate that your symptoms are flu-related. Similarly, when other people you’ve enjoyed a meal with are taken ill, that may indicate that your symptoms have been caused by a foodborne illness. A healthcare practitioner may be able to determine the cause of your symptoms.

In all cases of illness, regardless of the cause, it is important to seek immediate medical attention when foodborne symptoms are severe.


What are some complications of foodborne illness?

Complications of foodborne illness may include Guillain-Barré Syndrome, which is a rare disorder in which the body's immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system. The syndrome may appear in cases of Campylobacteriosis, or infection by the Campylobacter bacteria. In about one in 1000 cases, several weeks after experiencing diarrhea, individuals may suffer temporary paralysis from Guillain- Barré syndrome. This condition usually requires intensive care.

Another complication is called Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS), and it appears in 2%-7% of cases in which an individual has been infected with E. coli O157:H7. HUS is characterized by destruction of red blood cells, damage to the lining of blood vessel walls, and in severe cases, kidney failure. In fact, HUS is the main cause of acute kidney failure in children.

About one-third of people with HUS have abnormal kidney function many years later, and a few require long-term dialysis. Another 8% of people with HUS have other lifelong complications, such as high blood pressure, seizures, blindness, paralysis, and the effects of having part of their bowel removed. With intensive care, the death rate for HUS is 3%-5%.

Thrombotic Thrombocytopenic Purpura (TTP) is a clinical syndrome characterized by low blood platelet counts, anemia, and kidney failure. Doctors may refer to adult HUS as TTP due to similar clinical features.

A third possible complication of foodborne illness is Reiter’s Syndrome, or “reactive arthritis.” Reiter’s Syndrome, which can result from Salmonella infection, is characterized by joint pain, eye irritation (conjunctivitis), and painful urination. Symptoms may appear from 1-3 weeks following infection and may not all appear at the same time. While most joints can be affected, pain and inflammation are most commonly experienced in the fingers, toes, ankles, knees, and hips. Though most commonly linked with Salmonella bacteria, the syndrome may also appear after gastroenteritis caused by other bacteria, such as Campylobacter and Shigella.

Most people with Reiter’s Syndrome will recover within a year; however, the illness can lead to chronic arthritis.

Shigella infection can lead to other complications, including severe dehydration, systemic infection (bacteria entering the blood stream), and seizures due to high fever in children under the age of 2. In some people, especially young children and the elderly, diarrhea can be so severe that the patient requires hospitalization. While foodborne illness symptoms usually resolve within 7 days, it may be months before bowel habits return to normal.

About 15% of people infected with Hepatitis A will have prolonged or relapsing symptoms over a 6-9 month period.

What should I do if I experience complications from a foodborne illness?

Complications can pose a serious health risk. It is important to seek the advice of a healthcare provider if you suspect the onset of complications from foodborne illness. If complications are severe, emergency medical attention may be required.

Are there support groups in the U.S. for individuals who have experienced or are experiencing long-term complications from foodborne illness?

There are a number of support groups that can be accessed through the Internet. Two examples are given below:

  • STOP Foodborne Illness is a non-profit organization started by families of victims of E. coli 0157:H7 infection. The goal of the organization is to support victims, prevent foodborne illness and advocate for safer food. The organization’s website is located at: .

  • ERIC’S ECHO, the E. Coli Help Organization, was founded by Rainer Mueller in honor of his son, Eric, who died after eating a hamburger contaminated with E. coli 0157:H7. This site contains considerable information about E. coli and food safety. It is located at:

Free Case Evaluation

If you or a family member has suffered from food poisoning, and you have a question about your legal rights, you can request a free case evaluation from our New Brunswick law firm by clicking on free case evaluation. You may also contact us toll free at 1-877-934-6274.

Free Case Evaluation

    Submitting this form does not create an attorney-client relationship. Please do not include any confidential or sensitive information in this form. This form sends information by non-encrypted email, which is not secure.