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Food poisoning is an infection or poisoning that people get from eating or touching contaminated food or water, or by being otherwise exposed to one of several harmful pathogens (bacteria, viruses, or parasites). It causes multiple symptoms including nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and diarrhea. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), food poisoning, also called, “foodborne illness,” affects 1 in 6 Americans each year. That means some 48 million Americans will become ill, with approximately 3,000 dying from the illness, this year.
Most people fully recover from food poisoning, but pregnant women and their unborn children, children younger than 5, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems are typically at greater risk for complications. Age group risk factors change slightly depending on the particular infection type.
Because the source of the infection is often related to poor food preparation practices, poor sanitation by food handlers, and other “farm to table” issues, food poisoning is viewed as a preventable public health issue.
There are many types of food poisoning, and more than 250 different foodborne diseases have been identified. New pathogens appear annually. While most of these diseases are the result of infections caused by bacteria or viruses, a few are straight poisonings (such as consuming poisonous mushrooms).
Some of the most frequently seen infections in the US are: Norovirus, Salmonella, Campylobacter, Listeria, E.coli 0157, and Clostridium Perfringens.
For virus related food poisonings, such as norovirus, 80% of outbreaks occur between November and April, likely due to the increased proximity of people to each other during winter months; or, in the case of cruise ships, the close proximity of people to each other in general.
What causes Food Poisoning?
There are several causes of food poisoning. Most infections are preventable with proper hygiene, adherence to food preparation safety guidelines, and an understanding of higher risk food types. An understanding and appreciation of the complex path our foods take from “farm to table” is also helpful in fully grasping all the potential impacts that this can – and does – have on our foods.
Farm to Table Challenges:
Raw Foods Pose a Unique Risk:
Poor Food Preparation and Cross Contamination:
Infected Food Workers
A number of risk factors can affect whether or not a person is affected by food poisoning.
Age and Health: A person’s age and health will play a role in the impact of an infection. In general, people are more at risk if they are:
Most people who get mild food poisoning do not seek treatment and the food poisoning symptoms will usually pass in one to three days. If symptoms last, there is blood in the stool, pain, or if there is significant dehydration, a doctor should be called. Likewise, if someone is in a riskier population (weakened immune system, pregnant, etc.) they should consult their doctor.
Food poisoning is usually diagnosed based on symptoms (fever, diarrhea, blood in stool, cramping, etc.), a detailed medical history, and a history of what you have been doing over the past few weeks such as any International travel, outdoor activities (especially those involving food), catered-type events and any large gatherings of people (conference, cruise, etc.). A doctor will want to know how long you’ve been sick, whether others in your family/group have been sick, and any information about specific foods you’ve eaten, especially those foods deemed as high risk for carrying pathogens. Your doctor will also perform a physical exam, looking for signs of dehydration, which is a common symptom of food poisoning.
Your doctor may conduct diagnostic tests, such as a blood test or stool culture, to identify the cause and confirm the diagnosis as food poisoning versus another illness.
If a stool culture is taken, your doctor will send a sample of your stool to a laboratory which will try to identify the specific pathogen. If an infection is found, further testing may be done to identify the particular strain (called “DNA Fingerprinting”, this is useful when public health officials are trying to pin down the source of a given outbreak).
Even if you do not seek medical attention it is helpful if you report food poisoning to your local public health department so that they can track any type of potential outbreak.
Food poisoning has multiple symptoms depending on the particular pathogen. There are also different incubation periods (the time between ingesting/exposure to the pathogen and the time of symptom appearance) for different pathogens, and the health of any given individual may also impact how quickly symptoms develop or how bad the symptoms may be once they develop.
E.coli, for example, may take a week of incubation. Clostridium perfringens may take less than 16 hours to develop symptoms. And some, like listeria show multiple levels of incubation: 9-48 hours for symptoms of gastrointestinal stress to occur, and 2-6 weeks for advanced disease symptoms to strike.
Typical symptoms begin with diarrhea once the pathogen enters through a person’s gastrointestinal tract. Other symptoms include:
If you experience any of the following signs or symptoms, you should seek medical attention.
Toxin poisoning, such as consuming poison mushrooms, is very serious and 911 should be called. Symptoms may include those listed above as well as mental confusion. Typically a person has knowledge that they have eaten a potentially dangerous food.
If someone shows signs of botulism, this is also a very serious situation and 911 should be called. Symptoms of botulism can include those listed above, in particular signs of neurological impairment.
Most people will fully recover from food poisoning.
Depending on the pathogen, the age and the health of the infected individual, some infections do progress to more serious conditions, including death. A few examples of infections that advance to worsening conditions:
There is no screening available for food poisoning, although there are many preventive things you can do to reduce your risk.
If your doctor does recognize that you have symptoms of food poisoning, however, he or she will likely conduct blood or stool tests to determine what pathogen you may have been infected with. Determining the pathogen will help in your receiving the appropriate treatment for a given infection, as well as providing potential outbreak reporting information to your local public health agency for tracking purposes.
Food poisoning is a preventable public health issue. However, some of the prevention is out of a consumer’s control, involving the farm, production plants, and many other points from the farm to the table. In restaurants, consumers have little insight into food preparation and employee food safety adherence.
Many government groups in public health have responsibilities relating to making the food supply less contaminated. Individuals can reduce their risk of infection by doing the following:
Practice Good Hygiene
Cook to a Healthy Temperature
Use Caution When Consuming Raw Foods
When Eating at Restaurants or at School
International Travel, Outdoors
Miscellaneous Notes on Canning and Honey
When Someone in Your Home Is Infected
The CDC maintains excellent information on food poisoning and the USDA has an interactive page where you can ask a variety of questions relating to foodborne illness, safe food handling and storage, and safe preparation of meat, poultry and egg products. An example is, “How long can I keep ham in the refrigerator?”
For most cases of food poisoning, no prescription medication is required. However, besides resting, the health issue that may need to be dealt with is dehydration (due to excessive diarrhea and vomiting). Fluids and electrolytes, minerals such as potassium, sodium and calcium, are lost when someone has persistent diarrhea or vomiting.
A stronger, healthier digestive system and a healthy immune response may help maintain intestinal health should you be exposed to a foodborne pathogen. This is really more of a preventative strategy. Eating healthy, whole foods; nutrient-dense vegetables; healthy proteins; complex carbohydrates and healthy fats, will provide the vitamins and minerals your body needs to maintain a healthier immune response. Exercising, getting a good night’s sleep on a regular basis; and practicing the preventative tips provided in this Condition Center will all help.
Probiotics, such as Lactobacillus acidophilus and Lactobacillus bulgaricus, can help restore and support the naturally occurring beneficial bacteria in the intestine. There is no evidence that probiotics used prior to exposure to a pathogen prevents a person from being infected. There is no evidence a probiotic cures food poisoning by killing off the infection. A probiotic can be helpful, however, in getting the digestive system back in balance with good bacteria after a person takes antibiotics for a food poisoning infection.
Herbs: There are no proven alternative solutions – such as herbs – to prevent or treat food poisoning. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), there are many herbs that have been used in traditional Chinese medicine to strengthen immune function and/or provide relief from intestinal stress, but clinical evidence is still lacking. And no testing has been done relating to food poisoning cures.
Here is a list of herbs that need further examination as to any role they might play in either preventing or treating food poisoning. They have not been proven to be effective in clinical trials.
If you suspect that you have food poisoning, or you find you are experiencing one or more of the symptoms listed for food poisoning, consult with your doctor regarding whether you should be tested and/or treated. Your doctor will make the determination based on your age and overall health risk factors.
Most food poisoning resolves itself in a few days. It is important to ensure adequate hydration as well as cautious sanitation relating to what you touch while infected, so as not to spread the infection to others.
If you have food poisoning that does not resolve itself in a few days, or if you have a fever, extreme pain or bloody stools; make an appointment to see your doctor or other medical professional for testing and possible treatment. If you have an infant with diarrhea you should arrange for the infant to see a doctor.
Watch for signs of dehydration such as dry mouth, excessive thirst, the inability to urinate, sunken eyes, weakness, dizziness or lightheadedness. Dehydration is serious. You may require intravenous fluids through an IV.
If you experience neurological symptoms such as blurry vision, slurred speech, muscle weakness and tingling in the arms, call 911.
Typically you will want to consult with your Primary Care Physician (PCP) or family doctor if you suspect you have food poisoning. That individual is most familiar with your overall health and any underlying conditions you might have, along with medications you might take.
In an emergency go to your local hospital ER or dial 911.
Pre-Diagnosis for food poisoning:
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