We usually think of eating as one of the most joyful, pleasurable activities of life. What’s better than sharing a tasty meal with friends and family? Unfortunately, everyone will experience food poisoning at least once in their lifetime; and it’s certainly no fun. Suddenly, a home cooked meal or a pleasant experience dining out takes an awful turn. Overall queasiness is accompanied with cramping, vomiting, headaches, and fatigue. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), each year, one in six Americans gets food poisoning from consuming contaminated food.
But what exactly is food poisoning? Food poisoning is the common name for what scientists call foodborne illness or foodborne disease. The most common sources for food poisoning are bacterial, viral, or parasitic agents.
Some well-known bacterial strains are Campylobacter jejuni (C.jejuni), Salmonella, and Escherichia Coli (E. Coli.). Campylobacter infection, or campylobacteriosis, is an infectious disease caused by campylobacter bacteria. According to the CDC, it is one of the most common causes of bacterial diarrheal illness in the United States, affecting more than 1.3 million people every year. Potential sources for campylobacteriosis are raw and undercooked poultry, unpasteurized milk, and contaminated water. Salmonella is linked to inadequately cooked eggs and chicken. Recently, salmonella outbreaks have occurred in contaminated raw tuna, pre-cut melons, and raw turkey. E. Coli is a bacterium that lives inside the intestines of all healthy humans and most E. Coli strains are harmless. But if you consume raw vegetables or undercooked ground beef, there is a chance of exposing yourself to E. Coli O157:H7, a particularly harmful strain that can cause severe abdominal cramps, bloody diarrhea, and vomiting.
Food poisoning by viral infection accounts for almost a third of food poisoning cases in developed countries. In the United States, more than 50% of food poisoning cases are viral and noroviruses are the most common foodborne illness. A norovirus, sometimes called “stomach flu,” is a primary cause of gastroenteritis. Foodborne viral infections usually have an incubation period of one to three days and share many symptoms of bacterial infections, including diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach pain. Other forms of viral infections are rotavirus and Hepatitis E. Likewise, there are infectious diseases, spread by bacteria, viruses, or parasites, that can be passed between humans and animals. One very famous example is the Ebola virus. These diseases that cause food poisoning are usually from contaminated sources of food or water. But, direct or indirect contact with an infected animal or insect can also be a source.
Parasites are organisms that derive nourishment from or at the expense of a human or animal host. Consuming raw or undercooked beef or pork can lead to taeniasis, the parasitic infection caused by tapeworms. While most infected patients may not experience any symptoms, tapeworms can cause digestive issues and may even lead to seizures and muscle damage.
Food poisoning can take place at any part of the food production process and can affect any kind of food. This means cross contamination is possible from the when the food leaves the farm, to the manufacturing plant, to the cooking and preparation, to the dinner table. Dr. Christopher R. Braden, MD, Deputy Director of the National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases (NCEZID) for the CDC, speaks of his work in detecting and preventing potential outbreaks. “One of my most memorable outbreak investigations started with investigators in Oregon and Wisconsin calling me to describe an unusual number of E. coli infections among children. We worked hard for the next two days to connect the DNA fingerprints of E. coli from those children with information about the foods that they ate prior to becoming ill. We identified spinach as the culprit which led to an international recall of fresh bag spinach from fields where wild pigs contaminated the spinach in the fields.”
Most cases of food poisoning are usually due to poor handling and preparation of food and improper food storage. The CDC estimates that each year forty-eight million people get sick in the United States from a foodborne illness, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die. Some populations are more vulnerable to food poisoning than others. Pregnant women are at risk due to their bodies’ changes in metabolism and circulation. Foodborne pathogens can also affect the baby. Pregnant women are advised not to eat raw foods, unpasteurized milk and juices, and undercooked eggs and meats as these can be potential sources for Listeria or Salmonella.
People with chronic diseases, such as diabetes, liver disease, or AIDS, and those receiving chemotherapy or radiation therapy for cancer are also at risk because of their weakened immune systems. For example, people on dialysis are fifty times more likely to get a Listeria infection. Children younger than five years old have developing immune systems that put them at risk. Also, adults who are sixty-five and older are at risk because their immune systems do not recognize harmful germs as they once did. Nearly half of people aged sixty-five and older who have a lab-confirmed foodborne illness from Salmonella, Campylobacter, Listeria, or E. coli are hospitalized.
All of this sounds scary but there is good news. The good news is that most bouts of food poisoning are mild. Healthy adults can heal within a week. However, those suffering with severe symptoms, such as blood in the stools, high fever, frequent vomiting and diarrhea that lasts for three days, should see their doctor. Having food poisoning is awful, but thankfully, for most people, it is not fatal. There are ways to help your body recover including being thoughtful about your food choices. It will take some time for your appetite to return. If you feel nauseous while eating, stop eating until it passes. The stomach needs time to resettle so that may mean not eating or drinking for a few hours. Getting rest also helps with recovery as the body is weakened and dehydrated due to fluid loss.
Yaqutullah Ibraheem Muhammad MS, RDN, LD, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends the following, “Keep the following tips in mind to help aid your best recovery. Be sure to replace lost fluids, not just water but also electrolytes lost through diarrhea and vomiting. Drink water. Try soups and broths, coconut water, 100% fruit juices, herbal teas and electrolyte tablets that dissolve in water. Your appetite will be less than stellar but when you can, be sure to include small light meals and snacks that consist of bland foods including crackers, rice, bananas, applesauce, whole wheat toast and rice. Bananas are also a good source of potassium and help to replace lost nutrients. These foods will help build your strength but will not upset your stomach like high fat and spicy foods will. Remember to avoid food items that will upset your stomach including dairy products, fatty and spicy foods as well as high fiber foods.” Drink plenty of fluids, especially drinks with electrolytes. Electrolytes are minerals, such as sodium and potassium, which help maintain bodily functions.
There are also things we can do to minimize exposure by implementing food safety practices. Dr. Mian N. Riaz, Ph.D, CFS, professor in the Food Diversity Innovation program at Texas A&M University advises that we, “Make sure your food is properly cooked. Keep raw meat separately from cooked meat. Wash hands and work areas. Keep food below 41°F in fridge and watch use by or expiration dates on the food.” Always refrigerate perishable food within two hours—one hour when the temperature is above 90°F.
Bleach and water are always a good go-to cleaning product, as the mixture cleans and sanitizes most surfaces. You can make your own cleaning solution, or you can go to the grocery store and choose your favorite cleaning product that contains added bleach. While hand sanitizers are good, according to the CDC, hand sanitizers must be used correctly in order to be effective. That means using the proper amount (read the instruction label), and rubbing it all over the surfaces of both hands until your hands are dry. Do not wipe your hands or wash them after applying. The best practice is to wash your hands frequently with soap and water before and after eating. Clean hands and a little knowledge about food safety can go a long way to protect you and your loved ones.
Kelly Crosby is an artist and freelance writer in Atlanta, GA.