Information for Healthcare Professionals

Key points

  • Healthcare professionals can learn how to diagnose, treat and report foodborne illness by watching a continuing medical education (CME) video from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
  • There are many different ways to identify and treat foodborne illnesses.
  • If severe diarrhea is present, patients should use oral rehydration solutions to prevent dehydration.
A doctor reading a prescription for a patient.

How are foodborne diseases diagnosed?

What Healthcare Professionals Need to Know About Foodborne Illness: Suspect, Identify, Treat, and Report‎

This FDA video uses three actual cases to illustrate the potential severity of foodborne disease and explains a four-step process for dealing with symptoms that may indicate foodborne illness: Suspect, Identify, Treat, and Report.

What Physicians Need to Know About Foodborne Illness: Suspect, Identify, Treat, and Report [YouTube]

Interested physicians can also earn one AMA Physician's Recognition Award PRA Category 1 CME creditTM on AMA's Education Center website.FDA: Food Safety and Nutrition Resources for Healthcare Professionals

The infection is usually diagnosed by specific laboratory tests that identify the causative organism.

  • Bacteria such as Campylobacter, Salmonella, E. coli O157 are found by culturing stool samples in the laboratory and identifying the bacteria that grow on the agar or other culture medium.
  • Parasites can be identified by examining stools under the microscope.
  • Viruses are more difficult to identify, as they are too small to see under a light microscope and are difficult to culture. Viruses are usually identified by testing stool samples for genetic markers that indicate a specific virus is present.

Many foodborne infections are not identified by routine laboratory procedures and require specialized, experimental, and/or expensive tests that are not generally available.

  • If the diagnosis is to be made, the patient has to seek medical attention, the physician must decide to order diagnostic tests, and the laboratory must use the appropriate procedures.
  • Because many ill persons do not seek attention, and of those that do, many are not tested, many cases of foodborne illness go undiagnosed, and most illnesses are not laboratory-confirmed.
    • For example, it is estimated that 29 Salmonella illnesses occur for every one that is laboratory-confirmed and that many hospitalizations and deaths caused by Salmonella infection are not ascertained

How to treat foodborne diseases

There are many different kinds of foodborne diseases and they may require different treatments, depending on the symptoms they cause. Illnesses that are primarily diarrhea or vomiting can lead to dehydration if the person loses more body fluids and salts (electrolytes) than they take in.

  • Replacing the lost fluids and electrolytes and keeping up with fluid intake are important.
  • If diarrhea is severe, drink oral rehydration solution such as Ceralyte*, Pedialyte* or Oralyte* to replace the fluid losses and prevent dehydration. Sports drinks such as Gatorade* do not replace the losses correctly and should not be used for the treatment of diarrheal illness.
  • Preparations of bismuth subsalicylate (e.g., Pepto-Bismol*) can reduce the duration and severity of simple diarrhea.
  • If diarrhea and cramps occur, without bloody stools or fever, taking an antidiarrheal medication may provide symptomatic relief, but these medications should be avoided if there is high fever or blood in the stools because they may make the illness worse.

2017 Infectious Diseases Society of America Clinical Practice Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Infectious Diarrhea

*CDC does not endorse commercial products or services.