A woman holding her stomach

If you’re suffering through a bout of foodborne illness, it can be hard to think about anything other than the quickest path to your bathroom. But once you’re able to, it’s worth letting health officials know you suspect that something you ate made you sick. They may be able to trace the illness to food you purchased from a restaurant or grocery store. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 6 Americans annually is sickened by harmful bacteria or viruses that were in the food. That’s far more than the number of illnesses that are reported. If more people let their doctors, local health departments, or federal health agencies know they may have eaten tainted food, it would increase the chance that officials could take action to protect consumers in real time and in the future. 

“Reporting helps the CDC and other agencies identify tainted food and remove it from commerce, and track illnesses,” says James E. Rogers, Ph.D., director of food safety and research at Consumer Reports. “It also potentially offers them more information that will help them figure out how the food became contaminated in the first place.”

If you think a meal made you ill, here’s what you need to know about when to contact your doctor and health agencies.

Signs of Food Poisoning

Vomiting and diarrhea are part of most foodborne illnesses, but they can also be a sign that you’ve picked up a viral stomach bug in some other way, such as by touching a contaminated surface with your hand and then touching your mouth.

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Viruses like the norovirus can spread through food, but they’re also easily transmitted when infected people touch doorknobs or countertops. Some other forms of food poisoning, like those caused by bacteria—including E. coli O157, salmonella, and Campylobacter—can spread person-to-person, but more frequently cases are caused by contaminated food.

No matter the cause, food poisoning can be quite severe and require treatment.

Bloody diarrhea may indicate a serious case of foodborne illness. “If you have blood in your stool, you should contact your doctor as soon as you notice it,” Rogers says.

Other symptoms that should send you to the doctor include a high fever (over 102° F); frequent vomiting that makes it impossible to keep liquids down; signs of dehydration (little or no urination, dizziness while standing, or a very dry throat and mouth while you can’t keep liquids down); or diarrhea lasting more than three days, according to the CDC.

Getting medical treatment early on is especially important for people at high risk for foodborne illness: the very young, the very old, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems. They’re more likely to get food poisoning in the first place and to suffer more serious problems when they do. 

Staying hydrated is a priority. If you can’t keep liquids down, try sucking on ice chips. Dehydration makes complications, such as the type of kidney failure that can be caused by E. coli O157, more likely. What you should not do if you have bloody diarrhea or a fever is use anti-diarrheal medicine, unless your doctor tells you to do so, according to the National Institutes of Health. It may increase the chances of complications in some cases.

What Made You Sick?

While many people assume that the most recent thing they ate is responsible for their symptoms, this isn’t necessarily the case. Symptoms can occur in the first few hours, but the average incubation period for the most common causes of foodborne illness is a few days. In some cases it can be weeks later. For instance, with bugs like Listeria monocytogenes, which can cause the rare but deadly illness called listeriosis, symptoms have been known to appear as early as the day of exposure or as late as 70 days after eating contaminated food.

If other people ate what you ate and they’re sick, too, chances are the food you have in common is to blame, though it’s also possible for two people to eat the same meal and for only one to get sick. People vary in their susceptibility to foodborne illness, and sometimes one portion of a food is contaminated with higher levels of bacteria or viruses than another.  

You can also check to see whether anyone has posted a report of any similar infection on iwaspoisoned.com, according to Rogers. While the self-reports on the site aren’t guaranteed to be accurate because they’re not confirmed with testing, the site has successfully identified a few big outbreaks before federal regulators or food manufacturers, he says.

Reporting a Problem

If you were treated in a hospital or by a doctor, they will most likely report your illness to health officials as necessary. If you visited your primary care physician, you may want to ask whether he or she plans to report your illness. If not, do so yourself. “Taking the time to report your case could help prevent other people from getting sick,” Rogers says, “and it may help improve the safety of our food system overall.”

The best place to start is your state or local health department so that someone there can begin an investigation, especially if you became sick after eating at a restaurant or aren’t sure what made you ill. Healthfinder.gov maintains a list of state health departments, though some cities, like New York, have their own health department. Tell investigators if you suspect a particular food, but even if you can’t pinpoint what may have made you sick, it’s still worth reporting. Health department investigators may be able to help you figure it out if they’re aware of similar cases in your area. 

Your health insurance company may also have a concierge nurse or phone service you can call that can help you figure out the best way to report your particular illness.

If you know that meat or poultry was linked to your illness, contact the Department of Agriculture through its toll-free hotline at 888-674-6854 or online

For illnesses related to nonmeat products, including fish, produce, eggs in the shell (the USDA oversees other egg products), or cheese, contact the Food and Drug Administration by calling your district Consumer Complaint Coordinator or downloading a report form and mailing it.

The more information you can provide, the better. For example, the USDA website lists certain things the agency will need to begin an investigation, including the original container the food came in and any uneaten part of the food. A receipt showing when and where you purchased the food may also be helpful. 

So while it’s tempting to dispose of any food you think may be contaminated—like a box of mixed greens or a package of ground beef—if you think you’ll report your illness, hang on to it. Public health officials may need a sample to test for harmful bacteria, Rogers says. Wrap it in another container and label it to ensure no one eats it. But don’t wait to thoroughly disinfect your refrigerator to prevent cross contamination.