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What is Food Poisoning?
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What is Food Poisoning?

The CDC states that one in six Americans will contract some form of food poisoning each year. Food poisoning can happen at any point of production: growing, harvesting, processing, storing, shipping, or preparing. It can happen at home if food is not cooked or handled properly. Food poisoning is caused by eating contaminated food, usually from cross-contamination- the transfer of harmful organisms from one surface to another. E. Coli, Listeria, and Salmonella are the most common bacteria that cause food poisoning. Toxoplasmais is the most common parasite and the norovirus is the most common virus that causes food poisoning. 

The symptoms of food poisoning can vary depending upon the source of the contamination. The most common symptoms, regardless of the type, are nausea, vomiting, cramps, abdominal pain, watery or bloody diarrhea, and fever. These symptoms may start anywhere from hours, days, to even weeks after eating contaminated food. Once symptoms start, they typically last from a few hours to a few days. Frequent episodes of vomiting, inability to keep liquids down, bloody vomit or stools, diarrhea for more than three days, extreme pain or severe abdominal cramping, or an oral temperature of 100.4 are symptoms that require immediate medical attention.  

Those at a higher risk of becoming ill with food poisoning are: older adults -their immune system does not respond as quickly and as effectively; pregnant women-changes in circulation and metabolism may increase the risk of food poisoning; infants and young children- their immune systems aren’t fully developed; and people with chronic diseases – the disease reduces the  immune response. Those in these categories should avoid eating raw or rare meat or poultry, raw or undercooked fish or shellfish (oysters, clams, mussels, and scallops, sushi), raw or undercooked eggs or foods that contain them (cookie dough), raw sprouts (alfalfa, bean, etc.), unpasteurized juices and ciders, unpasteurized milk and milk products, soft cheeses (brie and Camembret), blue-veined cheese, unpasteurized cheese, refrigerated pates and meat spreads, uncooked hot dogs, and luncheon meats and deli meats. 

The most common serious complication of food poisoning is dehydration- a severe loss of water and essential minerals and salts. Listeria monocytogenes may be most severe for an unborn baby. Early in pregnancy a Listeria infection can cause a miscarriage and later in pregnancy it can lead to stillbirth, premature birth or a potentially fatal infection in the baby after birth. Infants that do survive a Listeria infection can have long-term neurological damage and delayed development.  Older adults, children under five, and people with weakened immune systems have a higher risk of developing hemolytic uremic syndrome from certain strains of E. coli. This syndrome damages the lining of the tiny blood vessels in the kidneys, sometimes leading to kidney failure. At the first sign of profuse or bloody diarrhea and you are in a high-risk category, see your doctor immediately.  

Ways to prevent food poisoning include washing hands, utensils, and food surfaces often; keep raw foods separate from ready-to-eat foods; cook foods to a safe temperature; refrigerate or freeze perishable foods promptly; wash fruits and vegetable; defrost food safely (not at room temperature); and when in doubt throw it out.  

Food poisoning is usually treated at home and resolves within three to five days. Remaining hydrated is very important when you have food poisoning. Sports drinks, diluted fruit juices, and coconut water are helpful in staying hydrated. Decaffeinated teas with soothing herbs can help calm an upset stomach. Imodium and Pepto-Bismol can help control diarrhea and nausea but consult a doctor before using as the body uses vomiting and diarrhea to rid itself of the toxin. They could also mask the severity of the food poisoning.

Getting plenty of rest is also important. In severe cases, IV fluids at a hospital may be needed. When the vomiting and diarrhea have resolved it is best to ease back into your normal diet by eating foods that are bland, easy to digest, and low in fat. Examples include saltine crackers, gelatin, bananas, oatmeal, rice, toast, soda without caffeine, bland potatoes, and boiled vegetables. Foods to avoid would be dairy products, fatty foods, highly seasoned foods, high sugar foods, spicy foods, fried foods, caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine. 

Candice Hutchins is an RN at the Health West Pediatrics clinic. She has been a nurse for 17 years with most of her experience in postpartum and well-baby nursery.

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