I have now studied a major chunk of my microbiology course without understanding the basic difference between the three. The terminologies seem to be confusing. Is it a necessity for food poisoning to be cause by bacterial toxins? My texts include Shigella, which causes dysentery under food poisoning. What are the operational definitions for them? Is food poisoning more of an epidemiological term? I understand that they aren't clear cut identities and there is significant overlap. But could someone please help out?


1 Answer 1


First of all, diarrhea is a symptom, generally defined as passing large amount of loose stool. Diarrhea has countless causes, which include gastroenteritis and food poisoning (although not all types of gastroenteritis or food poisoning cause diarrhea).

Now the other two terms. Strictly speaking gastroenteritis refers to the inflammation of stomach/intestines, but clinically, it is most often used to refer to infection of stomach/intestines. Gastroenteritis is most often caused by viral infections e.g. rotavirus, noravirus, enterovirus, adenovirus... but can also be bacterial in origin.

As for food poisoning, is usually defined as illness (usually gastrointestinal symtoms, including nausea, vomiting and diarrhea) caused by "poisoned food". Food poisoning can be caused by the presence of a microbial toxin (which can sometimes be heat-stable ie not inactivated by boiling/cooking). Examples include S. aureus enterotoxin, B. cereus enterotoxin, shigatoxin... There can be an overlap, when ingestion of food causes an infection of the gastrointestinal system, but gastroenteritis is not necessarily foodborne.

Hope that clarifies things.

References for further info:
Food poisoning
Basics of acute viral gastroenteritis

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks a lot! Another important thing I gathered is that food poisoning need not lead only to GI symptoms. Like, the botulinum toxin has its effect on NMJs. Just felt like adding it up here. Anyway, thanks! and could you give examples of non foodborne gastroenteritis (infectious)? $\endgroup$
    – Polisetty
    Mar 6, 2016 at 10:00
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ You're welcome. An example for gastroenteritis not caused by food, could be something like an acute rotavirus infection. Although the virus does need to get the GI, it doesn't have to be through food, it could be contact with someone infected. $\endgroup$
    – Maljam
    Mar 6, 2016 at 10:04
  • $\begingroup$ Could you add source information to facilitate users to do more reading on the topic? $\endgroup$
    – AliceD
    Mar 6, 2016 at 10:04

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