Food poisoning

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Overview

Food poisoning is common. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every year approximately one in six individuals in the United States will have a foodborne illness.1


Although the precise symptoms vary depending on the specific germ (e.g., bacteria, virus, or parasite) contaminating the food or drink, most people with food poisoning experience nausea, vomiting, and/or diarrhea that can be managed with at-home care measures. In some cases, antibiotics or hospitalization for intravenous (through the vein) fluids may be required.

Symptoms

Most food poisoning illnesses cause nausea, vomiting, and/or diarrhea, which may be bloody, watery, or mucous-like.


Other potential symptoms of food poisoning include one or more of the following:


Abdominal cramps and/or abdominal discomfort or pain

Fever

Headache

Weakness

Symptoms may vary based on the specific germ contaminating the food. In addition, symptoms of food poisoning may develop within a few hours of eating or drinking, or they may take a longer period of time—even days—to develop.


Causes

The contamination of food may occur in different ways, such as food that is undercooked, improperly processed or canned, or prepared by someone who is sick.


Food grown in contaminated water is another potential source, as is cross-contamination that occurs during food preparation (for example, cutting up carrots on the meat cutting board).


While anyone can get food poisoning, certain groups are at a higher risk. Examples include:5


Anyone with a weakened immune system (for example, a person with HIV, cancer, liver disease, diabetes, or someone who is on steroid therapy)

Pregnant women

People who live in or spend a lot of time in crowded settings, like military barracks, daycare centers, cruise ships, or nursing homes

In addition, certain populations of people—infants, small children, and the elderly—are more likely to become dehydrated from food poisoning.


Risk factors

Improper hot/cold holding temperatures of potentially hazardous food.

Improper cooking temperatures of food.

Dirty and/or contaminated utensils and equipment.

Poor employee health and hygiene.

Food from unsafe sources.

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Complications

While most foodborne illnesses are simple enough to cure with medication or plenty of rest combined with fluids, complications can occur during the healing process. Sometimes individual symptoms develop and cause entirely new issues. These are some of the more common complications.

Kidney Failure

Hemolytic-uremic syndrome is an illness caused by food poisoning. The contraction of certain foodborne illnesses leads to infection of the liver, as well as other parts of the digestive system. An infection can cause the release of harmful toxins that destroy red blood cells. The destruction of these cells leads to kidney damage, which can develop into full-blown kidney failure. This syndrome is most common among children.

Arthritis

Salmonella-based illnesses can result in UTIs and joint pain. This pain can last anywhere from weeks to years. Sometimes the reaction of the joints leads to a case of chronic arthritis, causing a lifetime of after-effects of the food poisoning.

Brain/Nerve Damage

Some foodborne illnesses may lead to the contraction of meningitis, an inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain. Contracting such an illness can often, namely in babies, lead to mental retardation, seizures, paralysis, blindness, or deafness.

Death

Food poisoning can result in death when more serious illnesses develop from the foodborne ones. It can also occur when symptoms go untreated and cause dehydration, which leads to further complications.


Prevention

Avoiding contaminated foods and water is the key to preventing foodborne illnesses. That said, if you do get sick, don't be hard on yourself—sometimes, even with the best precautions, contamination occurs.


To reduce the chance of ingesting contaminated food:8


Wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and water before, during, and after preparing and cooking food and before eating.

Wash your knives, cutting boards, countertops, and other cooking utensils with soap and hot water.

Rinse fresh fruits, vegetables, and bagged greens.

Keep raw meat, eggs, seafood, and poultry away from other ready-to-serve foods or foods in the fridge.

Use separate cooking utensils/plates for raw meat, poultry, and seafood.

Avoid unpasteurized milk (raw milk) and juices.

Also, when cooking, use a food thermometer to make sure food is cooked to the appropriate temperature needed to kill germs (e.g., 165 degrees for all poultry).


In addition, throw out foods that are past their expiration date, even if they do not smell "bad" or look "funny." Many foods that are contaminated look and smell normal.


When traveling to other countries, do not drink tap water or use ice made from tap water, and try to avoid eating fruits and vegetables you can't cook or peel.


Another way to avoid food poisoning is to follow a predominantly plant-based diet, as many bacteria and parasites are more common in meat and animal products.