Food poisoning is a common, usually mild, but sometimes deadly illness according to eMedicineHealth. Typical symptoms include nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramping, and diarrhea that occur suddenly (within 48 hours) after consuming a contaminated food or drink. Depending on the contaminant, fever and chills, bloody stools, dehydration, and nervous system damage may follow. These symptoms may affect one person or a group of people who ate the same thing (called an outbreak). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that in the United States, food poisoning causes about 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and up to 5,000 deaths each year. One of the most common bacterial forms of infection, the salmonellae organisms, account for $1 billion in medical costs and lost work time. Worldwide, diarrheal illnesses are among the leading causes of death. Travelers to developing countries often encounter food poisoning in the form of traveler's diarrhea or "Montezuma’s revenge." Additionally, there are possible new global threats to the world's food supply through terrorist actions using food toxins as weapons.
More than 250 known diseases can be transmitted through food according to eMedicineHealth. The CDC estimates unknown or undiscovered agents cause 81% of all food-borne illnesses and related hospitalizations. Many cases of food poisoning are not reported because people suffer mild symptoms and recover quickly. Also, doctors do not test for a cause in every suspected case because it does not change the treatment or the outcome. The known causes of food poisoning can be divided into two categories: infectious agents and toxic agents.
--Infectious agents include viruses, bacteria, and parasites.
--Toxic agents include poisonous mushrooms, improperly prepared exotic foods (such as barracuda), or pesticides on fruits and vegetables.
Food usually becomes contaminated from poor sanitation or preparation. Food handlers who do not wash their hands after using the bathroom or have infections themselves often cause contamination. Improperly packaged food stored at the wrong temperature also promotes contamination.
According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), most cases of food poisoning are from common bacteria like Staphylococcus or E. coli. Food poisoning tends to occur at picnics, school cafeterias, and large social functions. These are situations where food may be left unrefrigerated too long or food preparation techniques are not clean. Food poisoning often occurs from eating undercooked meats, dairy products, or food containing mayonaise (like coleslaw or potato salad) that have sat out too long. Infants and elderly people have the greatest risk for food poisoning. You are also at higher risk if you have a serious medical condition, like kidney disease or diabetes, a weakened immune system, or you travel outside of the U.S. to areas where there is more exposure to organisms that cause food poisoning. Pregnant and breastfeeding women have to be especially careful. The symptoms from the most common types of food poisoning generally start within 2 to 6 hours of eating the food responsible. Botulism is a very serious form of food poisoning that can be fatal. It can come from improper home canning.
You will usually recover from the most common types of food poisoning within a couple of days according to the NIH. The goal is to make you feel better and avoid dehydration. Drink any fluid (except milk or caffeinated beverages) to replace fluids lost by diarrhea and vomiting. Children should be given an electrolyte sold in drugstores. Don't eat solid foods until the diarrhea has passed, and avoid dairy, which can worsen diarrhea. If you have diarrhea and are unable to drink fluids (for example, due to nausea or vomiting), you may need medical attention and intravenous fluids. This is especially true for young children. If you take diuretics, you need to manage diarrhea carefully. Talk to your doctor -- you may need to stop taking the diuretic while you have the diarrhea. Medications should NEVER be stopped or changed without discussing with your doctor and getting specific instructions. For the most common causes of food poisoning, your doctor would NOT prescribe antibiotics. Antibiotics can actually prolong diarrhea and keep the organism in your body longer. If you have eaten toxins from mushrooms or shellfish, you will need to be seen right away. The emergency room doctor will take steps to empty out your stomach and remove the toxin.
To prevent food poisoning, according to the NIH, take the following steps when preparing food:
--Carefully wash your hands and clean dishes and utensils.
--Use a thermometer when cooking. Cook beef to at least 160°F, poultry to at least 180°F, and fish to at least 140°F.
--DO NOT place cooked meat or fish back onto the same plate or container that held the raw meat, unless the container has been thoroughly washed.
--Promptly refrigerate any food you will not be eating right away. Keep the refrigerator set to around 40°F and your freezer at or below 0°F. DO NOT eat meat, poultry, or fish that has been refrigerated uncooked for longer than 1 to 2 days.
--DO NOT use outdated foods, packaged food with a broken seal, or cans that are bulging or have a dent.
--DO NOT use foods that have an unusual odor or a spoiled taste.
The NIH also reports some other steps to take:
--If you take care of young children, wash your hands often and dispose of diapers carefully so that bacteria can't spread to other surfaces or people.
--If you make canned food at home, be sure to follow proper canning techniques to prevent botulism.
--DO NOT feed honey to children under 1 year of age.
--DO NOT eat wild mushrooms.
--When traveling where contamination is more likely, eat only hot, freshly cooked food. Drink water only if it's been boiled. DO NOT eat raw vegetables or unpeeled fruit.
--DO NOT eat shellfish exposed to red tides.
--If you are pregnant or have a weakened immune system, DO NOT eat soft cheeses, especially imported from countries outside the U.S.
The Mayo Clinic says to prevent food poisoning: Keep hot food hot and cold food cold. And keep everything — especially your hands — clean. If you follow these basic rules, you'll be less likely to become ill from food poisoning. And, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), a few simple precautions can reduce the risk of foodborne diseases:
1.) COOK meat, poultry and eggs thoroughly. Using a thermometer to measure the internal temperature of meat is a good way to be sure that it is cooked sufficiently to kill bacteria. For example, ground beef should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160o F. Eggs should be cooked until the yolk is firm.
2.) SEPARATE: Don't cross-contaminate one food with another. Avoid cross-contaminating foods by washing hands, utensils, and cutting boards after they have been in contact with raw meat or poultry and before they touch another food. Put cooked meat on a clean platter, rather back on one that held the raw meat.
3. CHILL: Refrigerate leftovers promptly. Bacteria can grow quickly at room temperature, so refrigerate leftover foods if they are not going to be eaten within 4 hours. Large volumes of food will cool more quickly if they are divided into several shallow containers for refrigeration.
4.) CLEAN: Wash produce. Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables in running tap water to remove visible dirt and grime. Remove and discard the outermost leaves of a head of lettuce or cabbage. Because bacteria can grow well on the cut surface of fruit or vegetable, be careful not to contaminate these foods while slicing them up on the cutting board, and avoid leaving cut produce at room temperature for many hours. Don't be a source of foodborne illness yourself. Wash your hands with soap and water before preparing food. Avoid preparing food for others if you yourself have a diarrheal illness. Changing a baby's diaper while preparing food is a bad idea that can easily spread illness.
5.) REPORT: Report suspected foodborne illnesses to your local health department. The local public health department is an important part of the food safety system. Often calls from concerned citizens are how outbreaks are first detected. If a public health official contacts you to find our more about an illness you had, your cooperation is important. In public health investigations, it can be as important to talk to healthy people as to ill people. Your cooperation may be needed even if you are not ill.
Food poisoning can be deadly. Make sure that you follow the common sense guidelines for keeping food safe so you don't have issues with food poisoning. It can be a huge interruption in your day if you get it, and recovery can take anywhere from a day or two, or more. Keep your hands clean before you eat, and store food in proper locations before and after cooking. Don't get sick.
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