Food-borne illnesses affect millions of Americans each year. Many persons who think they have the flu or a virus are really victims of mild cases of food poisoning, caused by bacteria and viruses found in food. Particularly vulnerable to these infections are young children, the elderly, pregnant women (because of the risk to the fetus), and persons with chronic or serious illnesses, whose immune systems are already weakened.
Most food-borne illnesses are caused by eating food containing certain types of bacteria or viruses. After a person has eaten these foods, the microorganisms continue to grow, causing an infection. Foods can also cause illness if they contain a toxin or poison produced by bacteria growing in food.
Several different kinds of bacteria can cause food poisoning. Some of the common bacteria include the following:
- Salmonella and Campylobacter - normally found in warm-blooded animals such as cattle, poultry, and swine and may be present in raw meat, poultry, eggs, or unpasteurized dairy products.
- Clostridium perfringens - may be present in raw meat, poultry, eggs, or unpasteurized dairy products, as well as in vegetables and crops that come into contact with soil. Infection may occur when soups, stew, and gravies made with meat, fish, or poultry are stored improperly or left unrefrigerated for several hours.
- Listeria - mainly associated with raw foods of animal origins.
- Staphylococci - occur normally on human skin and in the nose and throat. These bacteria are transmitted to food when handled.
- Escherichia coli (E. coli) - found in the intestines of healthy cattle. An infection is caused by eating undercooked beef (especially ground beef) or unpasteurized milk.
Hepatitis A and other viral diseases may be passed through the hands of infected persons onto the hands of food handlers or into sewage. Shellfish and other foods which may have been exposed to sewage-contaminated water can transmit these viral diseases.
Botulism is a rare but deadly form of food poisoning caused by Clostridium botulinum, which is found almost everywhere, including in soil and water. Low acid foods, such as meat, fish, poultry, or vegetables, that are improperly canned may be breeding grounds for this bacteria.
Unfortunately, most cases of food poisoning mimic gastroenteritis, and many people with mild cases of food poisoning think they have the "stomach flu." However, the onset of symptoms is usually very sudden and abrupt, often within hours of eating the contaminated food. The following are the most common symptoms of food poisoning. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:
- abdominal cramps
- watery and/or bloody diarrhea
- nausea and vomiting
- abdominal distention and gas
The symptoms of food poisoning may resemble other medical conditions or problems. Always consult your physician for a diagnosis.
Mild cases of food poisoning are often treated as gastroenteritis, with fluid replacement and control of nausea and vomiting being the primary focus. However, in serious cases of food poisoning, hospitalization may be necessary.
- Thoroughly wash hands before handling food.
- Wash hands after using the toilet, changing diapers, smoking, blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.
- Wash hands after touching raw meat, seafood, poultry, or eggs before working with any other foods.
- Do not use wooden cutting boards for cutting raw fish, poultry, or meat. Plastic boards are easier to sanitize.
- Thoroughly clean any surface or utensil after each use.
- Cook poultry, beef, and eggs thoroughly before eating.
- Do not eat or drink foods made from raw or undercooked eggs, poultry, meat, or unpasteurized milk, or other dairy products made from unpasteurized milk.
- Wash all produce thoroughly before eating.
- Avoid cross-contamination of foods by keeping produce, cooked foods, and ready-to-eat foods separate from uncooked meats and raw eggs.
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