The lowdown on foodborne illness symptoms


April 12, 2016

A Vanderbilt expert offers insight on foodborne illness symptoms and advice on how to avoid them.


It seems there’s a new food poisoning outbreak every couple of months. While we can’t avoid the chances altogether, you can take care to cook safely at home. William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, answers some common questions on foodborne illness symptoms.


Foodborne illnesses like E. coli, salmonella and listeria seem to be popping up on the news. What symptoms often accompany such illnesses?

Many foodborne infections produce a similar array of symptoms: fever, feeling poorly, nausea (sometimes accompanied by vomiting), abdominal cramps and diarrhea. Generally, these uncomfortable illnesses last a few days, up to a week. They are the most concerning for the very young, senior citizens and those persons with underlying illnesses because fluid loss can lead to severe dehydration.


What signs indicate a person should consult a physician rather than try to “tough it out”?

A number of symptoms ought to alert a person to call a doctor: high fever, persistent vomiting, prolonged or severe diarrhea, or an illness that lasts more than a day or two. Also, if the patient — particularly children or older persons — cannot take fluids or keep them down. And, as always, your sense of how sick the person is. If you have any concern, seek medical attention.

Need medical attention? Board-certified Vanderbilt physicians as well as nurse practitioners are on site at our Walk-In Clinics to take care of everything from flu, colds and coughs to fevers, rashes and injuries. Find a Vanderbilt walk-in clinic near you.

Is there anything people should look for at a restaurant that might raise a red flag?

It is difficult to spot a danger signal in a restaurant unless it is your sense that the place is not clean or sanitary — in which case, better look for another spot to get a bite to eat.


For those at home, what precautions should be taken during the cooking process to protect against foodborne illnesses?

Here are several tips for home cooking:

  1. Wash your hands frequently.
  2. Clean off your work surfaces; do not take the chicken out of the oven and put it on the unwashed cutting board you used before.
  3. Hamburgers should be served well-done (I know, I cry about this one also).
  4. Avoid letting food sit out at room temperature for prolonged periods.


Are there any food items that present more of a risk than others?

Chicken, common as it is, is nonetheless a regular hazard because more than 15 percent of raw chickens can contain salmonella. Watch out for picnics during the warm months — food often is left out for long periods, promoting the multiplication of possible foodborne bacteria.