Food poisoning, also known as foodborne illness, is one of the most common, gastrointestinal ailments in America. Each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 6 Americans, or roughly 48 million people, are sickened as a result of food poisoning. More than 128,000 people require hospitalization and sadly, about 3,000 people die each year because of food borne illnesses.
What Is Food Poisoning?
Food poisoning is the blanket term used to describe any illness that is caused by contaminated food. There are many different pathogens that can contaminate food. Some are more common than others. In addition to pathogens there are a number of chemicals and substances that can cause illness if they contaminate food. There have been more than 250 different foodborne diseases identified; most of these are some type of infection.
The cause of most cases of food poisoning is pathogens. A pathogen is any living organism that can cause disease. This includes bacteria, viruses, and molds. The most common pathogens that cause foodborne illnesses are:
- Salmonella – found in meats, eggs, milk and fresh fruits and vegetables. It causes symptoms that last from 4 to 7 days and typically clear up on their own. However, a salmonella infection can be quite serious to infants, the elderly and those with chronic illnesses.
- Norovirus – also known as Norwalk virus, it’s the most common virus associated with the stomach flu. It can be easily spread between people as well as contaminating food. The virus can also survive on surfaces that have not been disinfected. It can be spread through produce, shellfish or any product handled by someone who is infected. Symptoms typically last 1-3 days, though in sensitive groups it can last up to a week and require hospitalization.
- Campylobacter – though it is one of the most common causes of food poisoning, it usually occurs as an isolated incident, instead of as an outbreak as is the case with some of the other pathogens. Symptoms can last up to 10 days and is found in undercooked poultry, raw milk and in contaminated drinking water.
- Toxoplasma – this parasite is found in the flesh of many different meats and infects people when ingested. This can be a serious problem for an unborn baby whose mother is infected during pregnancy. Millions of people carry this parasite, but experience no symptoms at all. This parasite is killed during proper cooking or pasteurization.
- E. coli O157 – this particular strain of E.coli can be deadly. There are many others that are fairly benign and don’t cause illness. This bacterium is found in produce, juices, meat and unpasteurized dairy products. Symptoms usually will last up to a week. However, this bacterium can cause other serious problems such as kidney failure and even death.
- Listeria – this bacterium is particularly tricky. Its affects can last for weeks and it can take up to 70 days for symptoms to appear. Listeria is found in a variety of meat products, unpasteurized dairy products and produce. Listeria can grow in low temperatures, so refrigeration doesn’t kill it. One of the unique symptoms of Listeria infection is a stiff neck, so if a person has a stiff neck along with other symptoms, they should see a doctor immediately.
- Clostridium perfringens – this bacterium is responsible for nearly a million cases of food poisoning each year, and is particularly problematic in the food service industry. The reason is that this bacterium thrives in a specific temperature range, and in situations where large quantities of food are prepared and held for a long period of time. It most often affects meats and gravies. Symptoms are typical over in 24 hours or less.
The symptoms of food poisoning are similar no matter which bacteria caused the infection. They are:
- Upset stomach
- Abdominal cramps
- Stiff neck if the food poisoning is caused by Listeria
These symptoms can last anywhere from a few hours to a week and can vary in severity. If left untreated, or in serious cases, food poisoning can result in kidney failure, chronic arthritis, brain and nerve damage and even death.
Most of the time there is no treatment for food poisoning. Symptoms usually run their course fairly quickly. People may be advised by their doctor to do the following:
- Drink plenty of fluids (this isn’t always possible if someone is vomiting)
- Get plenty of rest
- Stick to eating bland, easily digestible foods for a few days after vomiting stops such as bananas, rice, apples and toast. It’s often called the BRAT diet for this reason. Broths and noodle soup can also help people regain strength after a bought of food poisoning.
- Over-the-counter medications for nausea and diarrhea may help provide symptom relief.
- If the illness is cause by a bacterium, instead of a virus or parasite, antibiotic medications may be prescribed.
In extreme situations hospitalization may be required. This is usually the case with sensitive groups such as very young children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.
Proper food handling is the single best way to avoid food poisoning. This includes;
- Washing hands before handling food
- Cleaning any surfaces that come in contact with food with an antibacterial cleanser
- Keeping cold foods at 40⁰ F or less
- Keeping hot foods above 140⁰ F
Food poisoning doesn’t have to happen as often as it does. By practicing safe food handling people can dramatically reduce the chances that they are going to get sick and that is good for everyone.