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Food Poisoning Viruses

problematic foodborne pathogens

Viruses & Foodborne Illness

Viruses are thought to be the leading cause of foodborne illness in the United States based on the percentage of people ill, even though there are only a few viruses that are important foodborne pathogens.
Viruses are much smaller than bacteria and cannot live outside a host, such as an animal or the human body. They are not cells but look more like particles (they have a protein coat, not a cell wall); reproducing only when they invade living cells. Although they do not multiply in food products, it can take only a few viral particles to make a person sick. Viruses are easily transferred from one food product to another, from contaminated water to foods, and from infected food handlers to foods. The two most well-known foodborne viruses are Hepatitis A and Norovirus (also known as Norwalk virus). Antibiotic drugs will not help in treatment because antibiotics fight against bacteria not viruses.


Common signs of foodborne illness are upset stomach, abdominal cramping, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and fever. These can develop in as short of a time as 30 minutes to as long as several days or weeks after consuming contaminated food or water.

Beyond these obvious symptoms, parents and family members often sense when serious illness is developing and should trust their instincts regarding when to seek help. Many describe lethargy, paleness, sleepiness in the hours/days leading up to diagnosis with severe foodborne infection.


Most foodborne poisoning incidents are considered sporadic, not connected to an outbreak, and are most often caused by directly consuming food contaminated with an infectious agent.

Secondary infection can also be caused by coming into contact with another person who is infected. Pathogens can also be contracted by drinking contaminated water.


It’s imperative that accurate testing be conducted early. If foodborne illness is suspected, your doctor should submit appropriate specimens for laboratory testing.

The most common lab tests are stool cultures which may take several days to render results. These cultures grow bacterial isolates which reveal critical information: which organism is making you sick, what its DNA fingerprint is, and which if any antibiotics can be used to treat your infection.

How Food Gets Contaminated

Contamination of food can happen during any point along the supply chain, which includes:
+ Production
+ Processing
+ Distribution
+ Preparation
Food contamination occurs when a microbial contaminant enters food. Microbial contaminants include bacteria, mold, fungi, viruses, or their toxins/by-products.

Risk Factors

Food poisoning is more dangerous for some people than others. It’s best to call a doctor for:
+ Adults 60 and older
+ Babies and children
+ Pregnant women
+ People with a chronic illness or compromised immune system


It’s conservatively estimated that 200,000 Americans develop long-term ailments from food poisoning including illnesses like chronic kidney disease (CKD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), reactive arthritis (Reiter’s Syndrome), Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS), insulin-dependent diabetes, seizures, visual disabilities, cognitive and developmental deficits.


When you seek medical care for diagnosis and treatment for food poisoning, you will likely enter the system through:
+ your pediatrician
+ your family medicine doctor
+ a hospital emergency room

During this first medical contact, you can expect the following three actions to be taken:
+ oral history
+ physical exam
+ diagnostic testing

Common Sources

Foodborne illnesses arise from a variety of pathogens, but many cases are linked to foods that were unsanitary and contaminated at their source. If you or your loved one are experiencing the symptoms of foodborne illness, take a moment to review these common sources of infection.

Illnesses can come from a variety of sources, and this list is a good place to start narrowing down possible sources of illness.


Foodborne illnesses can be prevented by properly storing, cooking, cleaning, and handling foods.

Get in the practice of washing hands, using a meat thermometer for safe internal temperatures, and a fridge and freezer thermometer for safe storage of raw and cooked foods, washing fruits and vegetables, keeping raw meat (and juices) separate from other foods, and cleaning and sanitizing work surfaces and utensils.

the most common types

Viruses that cause foodborne illness

Real People with real stories


Protect yourself against norovirus

Noroviruses are the leading cause of gastroenteritis and foodborne disease outbreaks in the United States.

Pathogen reference table

Incubation/Onset table

recent recalls
and outbreaks

STOP culls recall and outbreak information from FDA, USDA, CFIA and CDC for anyone who  signs up for free Food Recall Alerts.

Covering all 50 US States and Puerto Rico, and ten Canadian provinces and three territories, each recall notice includes the item(s) recalled, the contaminating pathogen, the states and provinces impacted, details about the products, and links to more information.


in your state or province (USA/Canada).


for foods contaminated with pathogens.

Share your foodborne illness story

We Will Help You Every Step Of The Way

Information provided in this section is in the public domain and is provided by US Food and Drug Administration (FDA); US Department of Agriculture (USDA), Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS);
the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDKD); and Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).

This information is not meant to be used for self-diagnosis or as a substitute for consultation with a healthcare provider.
If you have any questions about the pathogen described in this section or think that you may have a viral infection, please consult a healthcare provider.