Communicable Disease & Epidemiology

Foodborne Illness

Foodborne illness can cause a variety of symptoms ranging from nausea and stomach ache to vomiting and diarrhea, possibly a fever and fatigue. The bacteria or viruses that can cause food-borne illness can come from a variety of sources. This may include the existing environment, the food item itself, or from an ill food-handler.

Incubation period

How soon the symptoms of a food-borne illness appear after eating a suspect food depends largely on what type of bacteria, virus, parasite, or even chemical contamination is responsible for the symptoms. This is called the incubation period. Most commonly, the usual range is from ½ hour to 72 hours. Some common bacteria infections however, may have longer incubation periods. Chemical contaminations will typically have a significantly shorter incubation period. Therefore, the old adages –“It takes 24 hours to develop a food-borne illness” or “It had to be the very last thing I ate” are not always accurate. Simply, put…it’s NOT so simple! The pathogen or contamination, the symptoms of illness, the types of foods eaten, the incubation period, how much was consumed, age/health of the individual, etc…all can play a roll.

What to do if you suspect a foodborne illness

First, call your physician if it is an emergency. The health department cannot diagnose or treat your illness and is not intended to replace advice from your physician.

The Health Department regulates restaurants, caterers, and some other types of food-handling facilities such as food vendors (those that set up for fairs, celebrations, etc…). If you suspect that something you ate has caused you to become sick or experience unusual symptoms, please report it to the Communicable Disease Unit Health Department at (616) 632-7228. You may want to be prepared to give the following information – remembering that all information provided to the Health Department is confidential.

  • Name, address, and age of person or persons involved.
  • 3 day food history of food items eaten at any suspect meals by both those who became sick AND those who did not become sick.
  • Date and times of the suspect meal.
  • Date and time of onset of each person ill and the signs and symptoms of OVERT (vomiting, diarrhea, cramping, etc.) illness.

All of this information will help us determine the possible bacteria, virus, parasite, chemical, etc…that may have caused your illness. It also helps guide whether or not a Sanitarian will need to be sent to the facility to do an inspection. Even if you don’t think that your own case may cause an inspection to be pursued….the information is still important for surveillance purposes as we constantly look for additional complaints from others. More than a few outbreaks have been identified because of separate complaints coming into the Health Department!

Common Foodborne Illnesses

Microbe Causing Illness Incubation Period Signs & Symptoms Foods Usually Involved
Enteroinvasive E.Coli (NOT including 0157:H7) ½ to 3 days Severe abdominal cramps, fever, watery diarrhea (blood and mucus usually present), weakness Salads and other foods that are not thoroughly heated; water
E.Coli 0157:H7 1 to 10 days, usually 2-5 days Watery diarrhea followed by bloody diarrhea; severe abdominal pain, blood in urine Hamburgers, raw meat or milk, roast beef, sausage, apple cider, yogurt, sprouts, lettuce, water
Campylobacter 1 to 7 days, usually 3 to 5 days Abdominal cramps, diarrhea (blood and mucus frequently in stools), weakness, headache, body aches, fever, anorexia, nausea, vomiting. Sequela: Guillain-Barre syndrome Raw milk, poultry, beef liver, raw clams, water
Giardia 5 to 25 days, typically 7 to 10 days Diarrhea (pale, greasy, malodorous stools) abdominal pain, bloating, nausea, weakness, vomiting, dehydration, fatigue, weight loss, fever Salmon, salads, water
Norovirus (also known as Norwalk-like virus) 24 to 48 hours, typically 33 to 36 hours Vomiting, watery non-bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramps, nausea, low-grade fever Food or water contaminated with human feces
Salmonella 6-72 hours, typically 18-36 hours Abdominal pain, diarrhea, chills, fever, nausea, vomiting, weakness Poultry, eggs, and meat and their products, raw milk and dairy products, other foods contaminated by salmonella (e.g. sprouts, melons
Shigella ½ to 7 days, typically 1 to 3 days Abdominal pain, diarrhea (stools may contain blood, pus, and mucus), fever, vomiting Ready to eat food contaminated by infected person: frequently salads, water, poi