How long does food poisoning last?

I recently had what I am pretty sure was foodborne illness. It arrived in the middle of a friend's birthday party, a sudden onslaught of misery that lasted for the next 8 hours, reminding me, horribly, of a similar scene in The Mask of the Red Death. It was followed by two days of pretty much constant sleep. I don't recommend it.

But if a growing body of research is right, that 48-hours of grossness might not be the end of your body's interaction with a foodborne bug. In fact, some people seem to have otherwise unexplained symptoms persisting for years after they thought they'd recovered from food poisoning. This is best documented in people whose food poisoning experience was much worse than mine—folks who ended up in the hospital or the doctor's office and were, thus, accurately diagnosed, so we know they had a foodborne illness and not, say, a stomach flu. But it's an interesting hypothesis.

Maryn McKenna, my favorite Scary Disease Girl, has a story about this at Scientific American, plus some extra information at her Wired blog, where she explains why this phenomenon is so difficult to study.

I start the story with the tale of a Florida teen named Dana Dziadul, who 11 years ago was hospitalized with Salmonella and now at 14 has what is called “reactive” arthritis. Her mother Colette struggled for years to figure out why this was happening to her daughter, but didn’t put the pieces together until she was asked to complete a survey of foodborne illness survivors, and spotted a list of possible after-effects — sequelae, technically — that the surveyors were curious about. That caused her to go back into Dana’s medical chart, where she realized that her daughter’s joint problems actually began while she was hospitalized as a 3-year-old.

The challenge of proving this connection is that our system for investigating foodborne illness is not set up for tracking victims long afterward. That’s first because state health departments, which bear the burden of identifying outbreaks, are most concerned with finding people at the time, not keeping track of them; and second, because many outbreaks are spread across multiple states, with only a few victims in each state — so that maintaining contact with former victims would require a shared effort that no one is set up, or funded, to do. (That’s not even to mention the complication of people moving from one jurisdiction to another. Myself, for instance, I’ve moved five times in the past 10 years.)

Read the full story at Scientific American.

Read Maryn's summary of the research, and extra info, at her Wired blog.

Image: X.L.D. Agar 1 - detail, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from nathanreading's photostream


  1. I very  rarely drink alone. Social drinker FTW. But one time I found an odd beer in the fridge and thought – hey, what the hell!

    Big Mistake.

    I didn’t check the ‘born on date’, but I think it ended up being over a year old. I was soooo sick, just vomiting and voiding my bowels every 10-15min for hours. I stood up all night doing this. By the morning it stopped, but I slept most of the day afterwards.

    1. I drink alone sometimes.  In fact, I had a really great IPA last night with my pasta dinner.  Because beer is delicious.  Drinking great beers alone FTW.

  2. On the other hand I get a few times a year very minor cases of “food poisoning”  where a few hours after I have eaten something I have a single mild episode of the shits. Maybe my body has learned to quickly get rid of something that seems bad before it gets worse.

    1. That’s probably normal for most people, and probably not food poisoning either.  Sometimes your body just doesn’t agree with something.  Or there is another reason you have the shits.  Not necessarily food-related.

      1.  It definitely is when 2 or more people who have eaten the same food had the same reaction after  the same time period.

        I believe almost all cases of the shits are caused by micro organisms and most often food borne ones.

        What alternative reasons are there for the shits?

        1. When multiple people have the same symptoms, then I agree with you.  However!

          “What alternative reasons are there for the shits?”

          Eating too much of certain fruits or drinking too much fruit juice (I have done this lol).  Or if you’re lactose intolerant.  Or certain medications (antibiotics).  IBS. An ulcer. Getting nervous before a big event.


          I have a stomach highly sensitive to anxiety. So.

    1. Sometimes it’s rotavirus, which is not usually foodboorne. It’s spread when kids don’t wash their hands well after they poop and touch another kid’s hand, which then goes into the mouth or nose. Some strains are able to spread in contaminated water. Adults usually have plenty of acquired immunity to rotaviruses.  There’s also norovirus, which is less common, but when it hits, it hits hard. Norovirus is also spread primarily by direct contact.

  3. I haven’t read the whole thing yet so I don’t know if this has been addressed yet, but this “reactive arthritis” — arthritis is an auto-immune disorder, correct?
    It’s pretty common for auto-immune diseases to be “triggered” by some sort of trauma (even sunlight, for some!).

    The development of an autoimmune disease may be influenced by the genes a person inherits together with the way the person’s immune system responds to certain triggers or environmental influences.Some autoimmune diseases are known to begin or worsen with certain triggers such as viral infections. 

    So, it’s possible that a bad case of food poisoning triggered the arthritis, though it could have easily been something else.

  4. I recently had what I am pretty sure was foodborne illness. It arrived in the middle of a friend’s birthday party, a sudden onslaught of misery that lasted for the next 8 hours, reminding me, horribly, of a similar scene in The Mask of the Red Death.

    So, you had profuse bleeding at the pores as Poe describes? That sounds more like hematidrosis than food poisoning… (yes, I know you were probably exaggerating your discomfort for humorous purposes).

    1. @  Jonathan.  It’s an apt description for the horror of it.  Food poisoning is probably far worse than anything Poe could have imagined. 

      I am glad to hear you’re feeling better,  Maggie!

      1. I suspect food poisoning was rather common in Poe’s time. Also, I’d rather have food poisoning than be bricked into my basement.

    2. It was more the experience of standing in the middle of a party and realizing that something was terribly wrong with me. That’s the image from that story that’s always stuck in my mind. 

  5. OMG… a couple of months I had a stomach bug. No fever just horrible stomach pain and overall feeling terrible. For a week or two after my stomach was pretty sensitive to the touch. Then it got better but I would still get these brief pains in my stomach over the next couple of months. Then about two weeks ago, I had another bout of stomach pain that lasted about a week.

    It’s actually comforting knowing that it could be recurrent food born illness rather than something more malignant. Either way I’m going to the doctor.

    Thanks for the article. Interesting stuff.

  6. You have to differentiate between food poisoning and food-borne infections. Food-borne illness is usually Salmonella, Shigella, and Campylobacter for bacterial infections. Anything transmitted by the “fecal-oral route” (gross I know but that’s what it’s called and it’s an accurate description) can be food borne. The viral diseases mentioned above fall into that category – Norwalk, Rotavirus, Norwalk. But others can be transmitted that way to, like Hepatitis A and Typhoid (Typhoid Mary, anyone?).

    Food poisoning, on the other hand, is not actually an infection. You literally get poisoned by toxins produced by bacteria living on the food, not from the bacteria actually invading your body and starting to grow. The common culprits are Staph areas and Bacillus cereus. They’re the one’s that make you sick when you eat the potato salad that’s been sitting out at the picnic too long, or the leftover fried rice that wasn’t refrigerated. But there are many other types as well – botulism actually falls into this category as well.

    Because you are ingesting a preformed toxin when you get food poisoning, you get sick fairly quickly – within 4-8 hours. You’re violently ill while your body tries to purge itself of the toxin, but you’re usually ok after 24-48 hours. Food-borne infections take longer though. The bacteria take time to grow in your intestines to actually build up the infection. It can take several days to over a week. That’s why outbreaks of these infections are much harder to trace – people have a much harder time remembering what they ate a week ago, and the list of foods they ate over that time is much longer than what they ate over the past 8 hours.

  7. I can’t help thinking correlation vs causation here. If we assume there are some people who are better at fighting off illness (of all kinds), they won’t get as many food borne infections (from the same dose as your ‘average person’), or any other disease.

    That said, it’s an interesting idea, and certainly worth looking at-just it’s difficult how to discount the above.

  8. timely article–yesterday at 8am i was at work feeling fine.  10:30 am a couple hours after eating a bagel/cream cheese and some orange juice i was doing things in the bathroom noone (especially me) wanted to see or hear.  i’m mostly better 30 hours later, but next time i think i’m giving the cream cheese a miss.

  9. Interesting article. A while back I had a 24-hour bout of serious food poisoning accompanied by fever/nausea/runs that more or less wrung me out completely.  It took a while to be able to keep any food down, and then I was able to do simple broth and rice only. Even after “recovering” I developed a gluten sensitivity. Formerly having an “iron stomach”, being able to eat and digest anything with ease, I suddenly had all sorts of issues.

    My theory was that the baddie that I had ended up killing off some of my basic gut bacteria. After a lot of probiotics, daily yogurt, kombucha, etc, I am finally able to eat some wheat again. It’s been more than six months.

  10. My wife got clobbered by Mystery Ralph just last night.  She’d eaten spaghetti made with the same beef that went into the two burritos that I’d eaten last evening, and by 11:30 she felt just awful, nauseated and with a bad headache and stomachache.  After a noisy and voluminous purge into a nearby wastebasket, she caught her breath, brushed her teeth, took a pair of Advils and fell back to sleep.  Felt just fine this morning.  We still can’t tell if it was food-borne or just some digestive disagreement.  My burritos behaved quite well in my own innards, and I was really hoping it wasn’t a contagious bug, because we really don’t want our kids to come down with anything.  At the moment it just looks like a mercifully brief attack, because my poor wife was perfectly miserable for those 15 minutes or so.

    Also, I’m afraid to ask, but I just can’t make it out. What exactly is this picture at the top of the page portraying?

  11. Two years or so ago I bought a pack of deli meat at Costco. Very tasty.

    A day or so after a sandwich with some of that meat I started feeling poorly. Over the next few days I had chills, fever, the squirts, achy joints (no vomiting tho which is good cuz I hate vomiting) and missed a few days of work.

    Felt better after about a week. Was pretty sure that I had eaten something bad but it is usually hard to tell what it was when these things happen.

    After I was feeling better I looked in the fridge and saw that there was still some deli meat left so I made a nice big sandwich. Very tasty!

    Literally two hours later I got a message on my land line from Costco informing me that I had bought a pack of deli meat that may have been contaminated with salmonella and that I should not eat it and to return it to Costco for a full refund.

    My first thought was “How the hell do they know my home phone number?” Followed two seconds later by “Dumbass, they have your info from your membership credit card info.” Followed two more seconds later by “Gee I wish they had called me three hours ago”.

    I was prepared for another bout of feeling crappy but  it didn’t happen so I guess my body was able to fend off the bad guys the second time around.

    A couple of days after the phone call from Costco I received a form letter in the mail basically repeating what the phone message had said.

    Turned out that the imported (from India) black pepper used in the salami was contaminated with salmonella.

    Anyway, Costco still carries the deli meat (the manufacturer did a complete factory sterilization and switched importers of black pepper) from the company that made it and I still buy it and eat it.

    Haven’t had any issues with it since.

    But as they say, shit occasionally happens.

    1. Good thing you weren’t elderly, an infant , or already very sick.

      But yeah, blech. Glad you made it through.

  12. We should also all be concerned that food and agricultural inspections are yet another target of the de-funding agenda of the Republican party.  106 years of improving food safety due to USDA inspections has led people to forget just how dangerous the food supply was when producers were not regulated or inspected.

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