What is the best way to stay safe?
With the holiday season upon us, there is bound to be parties, dinners and get-togethers. What is the main thing that these have in common? Food. No question that it can be very enjoyable to share a nice meal with family and friends. However, something that isn’t often thought about is illness that can come from these foods. What causes the illnesses? Are there things that you can do to prevent them?
Food borne illness is when your gastrointestinal (GI) tract becomes irritated due to an infection caused by bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemicals that were in a food or beverage you ate. They usually come on suddenly, last a short time (a few hours to several days) and clear up on their own without any treatment. Food can be contaminated at any point during growth, harvest/slaughter, processing, storage, shipping, preparation, cooking or refrigeration. Cross contamination can occur when food that wasn’t infected comes into contact with another food that is or a surface that contaminated food touched, like hands, kitchen utensils and cutting boards. Also, if cold food isn’t kept cold enough and warm food isn’t kept warm enough, the infectious agents can multiple rapidly. The symptoms depend on the cause of the food borne illness and can range from mild to serious. The most common symptoms are vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain, fever and chills. Anyone can contact a food borne illness; however, there are certain groups that are more likely to develop it than others, such as infants/children, pregnant women and their fetuses, elderly and people with a weakened immune system.
The harmful bacteria that causes food borne illnesses is often found in raw foods, such as meat poultry, fish, shellfish, eggs, unpasteurized milk/diary products and fresh produce. Some common bacteria that cause food borne illness include salmonella, Escherichia coli (E. coli), Campylobacter jejuni (C. jejuni), Listeria monocytogenes (L. monocytogenes), vibro and Clostridium botulinum (C. botulinum). Viruses are much smaller than bacteria and are found in the stool or vomit of people who are infected, so they are more likely to be transmitted when people have not practiced good hand hygiene and then prepared/touched the food. Some examples of these type of viral infections include food preparation by a person who has the virus, shellfish coming from contaminated water or produce irrigated with contaminated water. Some viruses originate in food, such as the norovirus and hepatitis A. Parasites are tiny organisms that live inside another organism. Some are spread through water that is contaminated with the stool of infected people or animals, like Cryptosporidium parvum and Giardia intestinalis. Note, that these types can also be spread if an infected person doesn’t wash their hand properly after going to the bathroom before they prepare food. Another parasite, Trichinella spiralis, is spread if a person consumes raw or undercook pork/wild game. Chemicals that are harmful to humans if they are ingested can enter the food supply in a variety of ways. If fish or shellfish eat algae that has a high amount of toxins, they retain a large portion of the toxins, which can affect anyone who eats it. Some chemicals produced in nature, such as those produced by certain types of mushrooms, can make humans ill. If fruits and vegetables aren’t thoroughly washed, they can have high concentrations of pesticides on them.
There are no specific treatments for each type of food borne illness because they usually go away without any intervention. The biggest thing to do is prevent complications from being ill. The most common complication is dehydration due to the loss of fluids and electrolytes as the result vomiting and diarrhea. For adults, the signs of dehydration are excessive thirst, infrequent urination, dark-colored urine, lethargy, dizziness or fainting. For young children, the signs of dehydration are dry mouth/tongue, lack of tears when crying, no wet diapers for 3 hours or more, high fever, unusually cranky/drowsy behavior or sunken eyes/cheeks/soft spot in the skulls. Also, when people are dehydrated, their skin will tent, which is when their skin is gently pinched and released, it doesn’t flatten back to normal right away. In order to prevent dehydration from occurring, it can be helpful to stop your diarrhea by taking loperamide or bismuth subsalicylate (don’t take anything for diarrhea if you notice that it is bloody). Another way to avoid dehydration is to sip on small amounts of clear liquids or suck on ice chips if you’re still vomiting. If your vomiting has decreased or stopped, drink plenty of liquids, like fruit juice, sports drinks, caffeine-free soft drinks and broths. This will help to replenish the fluids and electrolytes your body has lost. Gradually reintroduce food by starting with bland, easy-to-digest things, like rice, potatoes, toast/bread, cereal, applesauce, bananas and lean meats. Don’t eat fatty or sugary foods, dairy products, caffeine or alcohol until you are completely recovered or you could trigger a relapse. For infants and children, it is essential to give them oral rehydration solutions, such as Pedialyte, to help prevent dehydration. If the child is hungry, give them food and give infants breast milk or full-strength formula in addition to the oral rehydration solutions. Elderly individuals can also benefit from these solutions.
Besides dehydration, food borne illnesses can cause other complications. Hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) is when E. coli in the digestive tract makes toxins that enter the bloodstream. These toxins destroy red blood cells and the lining of the blood vessels. This is a rare condition and typically affects children younger than 10 years old. Patients who have this experience the typical symptoms, but also have irritability, paleness and decreased urination. The good news is that with prompt treatment most people recover. In some cases, certain food borne illnesses can lead to neurological conditions and chronic disorders. While most of the time if you have a food borne illness you shouldn’t need to see a doctor, there are certain times that you should. If you have signs of dehydration, prolonged vomiting that prevents you from keeping liquids down, diarrhea for more than 2 days in adults or 24 hours in children, severe pain in your stomach or rectum, a temperature about 101°F, stool that contains blood/pus, stool that is black/tarry, any neurological changes or signs of HUS, then get immediate attention from doctor.
The best way to prevent food borne illnesses is to properly store, cook, clean and handle foods. Any food that is perishable, raw or cooked, should be refrigerated or frozen immediately because if they are left at room temperature for more than two hours, they can be unsafe to eat. Make sure your refrigerator is set to 40° or lower and your freezer is set to 0°. It’s also vital to make sure that food is cooked at a high enough temperature for a long enough period of time to kill the harmful microorganisms. This means that poultry should be cooked until the internal temperature is a minimum of 165°. For ground beef, veal, pork and lamb, the internal temperature should be at least 160°. For roasts, steaks and chops of beef, veal, pork and lamb, the internal temperature needs to be 145° (note: the key is to let these meats sit for three minutes after they are taken off the heat source). All raw meat, poultry and seafood, including their juices, should be kept separate from other foods in order to prevent cross-contamination. Produce should be washed under running water before it’s eaten, cut or cooked because this will help to remove any chemicals and microorganisms. Any utensils or surface that are used to prepare food should be washed with hot, soapy water before and after they are used. If you are handling raw meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, produce or eggs, you should wash your hands for at least 20 seconds under warm, soapy water before and after.
Getting sick from a food borne illness is not a pleasant experience, but the good news is that it is over quickly. If you have any questions or concerns, please speak with your doctor. If you would like more information, please visit FoodSafety.gov at https://www.foodsafety.gov/