Millions of people all over the world get sick every year from eating food that is contaminated. Foodborne illnesses can come from a variety of causes and symptoms range from mild to severe. Below is an overview of food poisoning symptoms, causes, health risks, and treatment options.
What Is Food Poisoning?
Food poisoning is also referred to as foodborne illness. This condition occurs when you eat food that has been contaminated with toxins. Food contamination can occur at any point during processing or when cooking. While mild cases of food poisoning are not dangerous and do not require medical treatment, severe cases need to seek help as soon as possible.
According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, bacteria and viruses are the most common cause of food poisoning in the United States. The bacteria most often associated with signs of food poisoning include Salmonella, Shigella, Yersenia, Campylobacter and Listeria. The viruses most commonly associated with food poisoning include Norovirus (Norwalk), and Rotavirus.
Toxic substances in food can also cause symptoms of food poisoning to develop. Mold produces dangerous toxins that can make you sick if you eat food it is growing in. For this reason, it is important never to eat food that has mold growth, even if you remove visible mold. Some other types of toxins that can cause foodborne illness are found in mushrooms, pesticides, and household chemicals. An allergic reaction after eating improperly cooked fish stems from histamine.
Parasites are organisms too small for the naked eye to see, but they can make you sick if you eat food they contaminate. These tiny living organisms live by taking nourishment from the host they live in. Roundworms (such as Trichinosis or Anisakiasis), tapeworms, and protozoa (such as Cryptosporiasis) are responsible for the majority of parasitic foodborne illnesses in the United States today.
Quick Care Or ER?
While most cases of food poisoning resolve on their own in a few days, some people may need to seek medical treatment if symptoms are ongoing or severe. If you experience the following symptoms, it is important to go to the ER:
- Bloody Stools
- Explosive Diarrhea
- Allergic Reaction
- Shortness of Breath
- Uncontrolled Vomiting
- Fever Over 100.5 Degrees Fahrenheit
- Blurry Vision
- Excessive Thirst
- Dry Mouth
- Reduced Urination Output
- Intense Stomach Cramping
- Diarrhea Lasting Longer Than 3 Days
- Diagnosed Food Poisoning
What will your doctor ask?
In order to determine the cause of your symptoms, your doctor will begin by taking a detailed medical history. Remember, a symptom is your description of your condition to your doctor. It is YOUR STORY.
Food poisoning produces symptoms that often appear just a few hours after eating food that is contaminated. The most common symptoms associated with food poisoning are nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, bloating, body aches, stomach pain, fever and abdominal cramps. If this condition is severe or ongoing, it can lead to overall weakness and weight loss.
Some people are at an increased risk of developing food poisoning when exposed to contaminated food. Infants, older adults, toddlers and pregnant women are high-risk groups.
It is important to include information such as previously diagnosed medical conditions. Persons who are immunocompromised with AIDS, for example, are more subject to Cryptosporidia.
It is important to know if you have eaten any different foods or have traveled to foreign lands. I also ask my patients if they had gone camping since the Giardias is a common back packers illness.
Scrombroid poisoning is typically caused by deep ocean fish that had not been refrigerated. Patients may describe the fish as tasting “peppery.” Unique to scrombroid fish food poisoning is an itchy histamine-like reaction.
Your doctor will want to know a sequence of events. That is, how long after eating did you become ill?
Also, the location of the onset of illness is important. On a cruise ship, for example, the Norwalk virus is a known cause of food poisoning outbreaks.
What will your doctor look for?
After taking a medical history, your doctor will take vital signs such as weight, temperature and blood pressure. They will then document the results in your medical records.
Your doctor may run a battery of tests to diagnose your condition. When food poisoning is suspected, your doctor may run blood tests, check stool samples and perform stool cultures.
An allergic reaction due to poorly stored scombroid (mackerel, albacore, sardines) fish may result in difficulty breathing. Airway protection is a priority.
Key points: Your doctor will look for dehydration and infection.
How Does My Food Become Contaminated?
There are several ways your food can become contaminated with things that can make you sick. Improper storage of food, undercooked food and improper hygiene, when handling food are all common food safety causes of food poisoning. You may also get a foodborne illness by eating unpasteurized foods such as cheese or milk. If raw meat is not handled properly, you can cross-contaminate other foods and that can make you sick, as well. This often happens when someone cuts raw meat with a knife and then uses it to cut other foods without washing it.
Water can also become contaminated with organisms that produce food poisoning symptoms. One of the commonly known is Cholera. This is most common in countries with poor sanitation standards. Water supplies face contamination when feces from animals or humans leach into the water supply. Unfortunately, this tends to occur following natural disasters as seen recently in Haiti.
How to prevent Food Poisoning
While the symptoms associated with food poisoning are uncomfortable and unpleasant, there are ways you can reduce your risk of infection. Washing your hands with hot water while you cook and using a meat thermometer to be sure your meat reaches appropriate temperatures are two ways to reduce your risk. If you are pregnant or a senior citizen, it is important to avoid foods that raise your risk of infection. You can accomplish this by avoiding undercooked meat, soft cheeses, and unpasteurized products.
What Is the Treatment for Food Poisoning?
The treatment for food poisoning depends on the primary cause of your condition. There are many over-the-counter food poisoning remedies that can ease the discomfort of symptoms. Anti-nausea, pain relievers for the spasms, and anti-diarrhea medications may ease your symptoms. However, most people who have symptoms that are difficult to resolve receive IV fluids, which replace important electrolytes lost when you have diarrhea and vomiting that goes on for several days. Your doctor may also prescribe antibiotics such as Cipro or Flagyl for severe symptoms associated with bacterial infections. Since bacterial infections can be serious, your doctor may hospitalize you for IV antibiotics if he feels it is necessary. Allergic-type reactions from scromboid fish is treated with Benadryl.
How Long Will You Have Food Poisoning?
So, just how long does food poisoning last? Most people with this condition experience symptoms from 2 to 10 days. However, if your symptoms are severe or last longer than 10 days you should seek the advice of a doctor to rule out other causes for your symptoms.
Certain types of food poisoning (such as from E Coli 0157:H7) can lead to complications such as kidney failure, weakening of the immune system and severe dehydration. Pregnant women who suffer from food poisoning can have premature birth or stillborn babies. Babies exposed to certain bacteria in foodborne illnesses may be born with neurological deficits.