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Food-Related Illness: Playing It Safe

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Britt and Mike joined two friends at a favorite restaurant for dinner and shared a large pizza. While they had a great time, later that night was a different story. All four awoke with severe nausea, stomach cramps and vomiting -- enough to send them to the emergency room. After running some tests, the ER doctor said they had a food-related illness. The culprit was a bacterium in the pizza.

Each year in the United States, some 76 million people experience food-related illnesses. New outbreaks are reported daily. They come from sources such as E. coli in undercooked hamburger or bacteria-laden lettuce; salmonella from raw chicken, eggs, and green onions; or listeria bacteria from soft cheeses and lunch meats. Food-related illness is a serious problem. But you can protect yourself if you know the facts.

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What Causes Food-Related Illness?

While you might encounter thousands of types of bacteria in your everyday environment, most cause you no harm. But when harmful bacteria, such as salmonella, campylobacter, listeria and E. coli, enter our food or water supply, they cause problems ranging from flu-like symptoms to serious illness -- even death.

Three common types of food-related bacteria are:

  • Salmonella species. This is the bacterium that can cause illness when you eat raw or undercooked eggs (even in chocolate chip cookie dough!). Salmonella species are the No. 1 cause of food-related illness in the United States. They are responsible for more deaths than any other food-borne pathogen. Salmonella infection can lead to fever, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea within 12 hours to three days after eating the contaminated food.
  • Campylobacter. This is the most common cause of diarrhea and abdominal cramps from food-related illness. While most raw poultry meat has campylobacter on it, vegetables and fruits can also become contaminated with juices that drip from raw chicken. Unpasteurized milk or cheese or contaminated water may also cause this infection.
  • Escherichia coli 0157:H7 (E. coli). This is a common cause of dehydrating diarrhea worldwide. While most strains of E. coli live in the intestines of healthy humans and animals, the 0157:H7 strain can be deadly, leading to bloody diarrhea and even kidney failure. Other, less dangerous, E. coli are responsible for most cases of "travelers' diarrhea."
  • Staph aureus. This organism contaminates many different kinds of food. It causes food poisoning with vomiting followed by diarrhea in many cases. It is often associated with restaurants or picnics where food is not properly refrigerated or stays out of the refrigerator too long.
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