Ugh, I’m Sick. It Was Definitely What I Had For Lunch, Right? Or, A Scientist Tries to Figure Out What Made Her Sick.


Unfortunately, this post is prompted by real life events as I am currently sick with a gastrointestinal (GI) malady, and I would really like to figure out what caused it. So, first things first. What have I eaten recently?

To the best of my knowledge, I have eaten the following over the last few days:

  • cereal mixed with raw rolled oats (daily)
  • milk (daily)
  • coffee (daily)
  • hummus (2 days pre-onset of symptoms
  • carrots
  • beef stew (homemade) (supper 2 days before onset of symptoms)
  • peanut butter and jelly sandwich (lunch 3 days before onset)
  • ice cream
  • German chocolate cake (including a smidge of batter)
  • Hint of Lime tortilla chips
  • Clam chowder and bread from cafe (24 hours pre-onset)
  • salad purchased from hospital cafeteria (yesterday)

Now, at this point I have to acknowledge that I could just have a nasty virus completely unrelated to food. But if it is food, I have to consider two things:

  1. time from consumption–>illness
  2. risk associated with food

Typically, we assume that whatever we ate last was what made us sick. In reality, this is typically not true. Most foodborne pathogens require a minimum of 4-6 hours and more often 24+ hours post-consumption to cause symptoms (1). Which means if I’m sick from a foodborne pathogen, it’s probably not from whatever I had for lunch. Which means the salad is out. I had cake and ice cream the night before for dinner (don’t judge, please); neither of these are generally high risk foods (bacteria don’t grow in the freezer, and the cake was refrigerated). So that leaves the chowder. Now, chowder in theory could be a high-risk food. It’s rich and creamy, which is good for some spore forming bacteria, such as Bacillus cereus. It had bacon crumbled into it, which means it was handled extensively (a risk for Staph aureus if proper hygiene wasn’t observed). Finally, soups aren’t always kept quite hot enough in food service establishments, which could allow bacteria to grow.

Now, here’s where the theory breaks down… B. cereus and Staph both are rapid onset… both would potentially be found in chowder, but I didn’t start having symptoms till the following day, about 18 hours later (and severe symptoms began about 27 hours later. So none of this quite works, timeline-wise. Symptoms-wise, mine match up with various pathogenic E. coli, B. cereus, and Clostridium perfringens symptoms.

In summary… I don’t know. Short of culturing a fecal sample, I won’t know. And even if I did that, pinpointing the exact source of the pathogen would be tricky because I don’t have leftovers from everything I ate in the last few days.  So the next time you get a GI illness, you can do what I just did and throw up your hands in defeat on figuring out what made you sick.  But really, does it matter? Probably not. Whatever it is, if you drink some electrolytes and lots of water, eat some easily-digestible food, and rest, chances are your immune system will take care of it within the next few days.


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