Family Health: 3 ways food can make you sick

When food makes you sick, the physiology behind what caused your symptoms is probably not your first worry. You’re more likely to be concerned with getting over the nausea, rash, itching, swelling, fever or other symptom that can result from eating certain foods.

But once you feel better, it’s a good idea to consider the ways food can lead to sudden, and sometimes serious, illness. Knowing the following common causes can help you avoid illnesses from food:

Food poisoning

Doctors call this foodborne illness because it isn’t the food itself that makes you sick. Instead, it’s an organism such as a bacteria, virus or parasite that has contaminated the food. The CDC reports that each year one in six people in the U.S. get sick from pathogens such as E. coli, salmonella, norovirus and listeria in food.

The most common symptoms of food poisoning are nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. People usually feel better in two or three days, but some cases are more serious. See your doctor if you have diarrhea along with a fever over 101.5 debrees, blood in your stool or prolonged vomiting that keeps you from staying hydrated.

Pathogens can contaminate food where it is grown, processed or prepared in a restaurant, and problems can also start in your own kitchen. These steps can help you avoid food contamination:

  • Wash your hands before you start preparing food.
  • Wash your hands, utensils and cutting boards after they contact raw meat or poultry.
  • Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables in running water, even if you’re going to peel them.
  • Don’t eat undercooked meat, or raw or undercooked eggs.
  • Refrigerate leftovers within two hours.

Food Intolerance

Milk, apples, strawberries, tomatoes, bananas – these are a few foods that typically cause food intolerance, also called food sensitivity. It occurs when something in a food irritates your digestive system or when you can’t digest the food properly. For example, people with lactose intolerance are sensitive milk because they lack the enzyme to digest lactose, the sugar in milk.

People may also be sensitive to food additives, such as monosodium glutamate or sulfites. Naturally occurring substances, such as gluten, can also cause a food sensitivity.

You may have a food intolerance if you have gas, bloating or cramps after you eat a particular food. Less commonly, food intolerance can also cause nausea, vomiting, stomach pain or diarrhea. If other people who ate the same food are also sick, these symptoms can mean you have food poisoning instead.

If you think you may have a food intolerance, try keeping a food diary to track what you eat and when you have symptoms. Once you identify some suspicious foods, eliminate one at a time from your diet to see if your symptoms go away. In some cases, such as lactose intolerance, a medical test can confirm your diagnosis.

These steps can help you avoid problems with food intolerance:

  • Avoid the food. That will mean reading food labels and asking restaurant servers about the ingredients in the meals you order.
  • Try taking a digestive enzyme before you eat. These products can help with foods that produce gas, such as beans, broccoli and others.
  • For lactose intolerance, try drinking lactose-free milk or taking pills with the lactase enzyme before drinking regular milk.
  • Try eating only small amounts of the problem food, or eating it rarely. This can work for mild food sensitivities.

Food allergy

This condition is much less common but much more serious than food intolerance. It happens when your immune system reacts to a specific food protein as if it were a threat. Your body quickly releases chemicals that cause symptoms such as swelling, hives, itchy skin, sneezing and teary eyes. Food allergies can also cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. The foods most likely to cause an allergic reaction are milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat.

In some cases, food allergies result in a life-threatening condition called anaphylaxis. This happens when the person’s throat and airways constrict, making it hard to breathe. People with this condition may have swelling in their lips, tongue or throat and begin to wheeze. If you have these symptoms, get medical help right away.

The best way to avoid food allergy symptoms is to avoid eating the problem food. If a slip-up results in only mild symptoms, try an over-the-counter or prescription antihistamine.

If you’ve had a severe reaction, though, you need to be serious about following these steps to stay safe:

  • Don’t eat the problem food. Check food labels, ask what’s in restaurant meals, and make sure your friends know what foods you can’t eat.
  • Carry a device such as an EpiPen, Twinject or Auvi-Q. These devices automatically inject epinephrine to relieve anaphylaxis symptoms.
  • Wear a medical alert bracelet or necklace that tells people you have a food allergy.
  • See your doctor. He or she can help you identify your problem foods get you on track to avoid symptoms.

If you’ve had troublesome symptoms after eating but aren’t sure why, it’s a good idea to get help diagnosing your problem by calling your health care provider.


Shawn Lake writes for Community Medical Center.

This article is also published in the Missoulian.