Food-Related Illness: Playing It Safe

From the WebMD Archives

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.

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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What Are Symptoms of Food-Related Illness?

The symptoms vary, depending on the bacteria and the person who ingests it. Some common symptoms include:

  • Backache
  • Chills
  • Constipation
  • Stomach cramps
  • Diarrhea (frequent, watery, sometimes bloody)
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

How Is a Food-Related Infection Detected?

If you suspect a food-related infection, seek medical care. Your doctor may culture a stool sample to identify the bacteria. Treatment may follow, depending on the bacteria and your symptoms.

Experts believe that many people who have diarrhea or vomiting simply assume it's a "virus," and let it run its course instead of getting an accurate diagnosis. For this reason, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that 38 cases of salmonellosis actually occur for every case that is diagnosed and reported to public health authorities.

The good news is that like viruses, most bacterial food poisoning resolves in less than seven days. If you have limited symptoms and are able to keep fluid down, treatment of your symptoms may be sufficient. But if you have blood or mucus in your stools, along with fever, those are signs of bacterial infection. You need medical attention and possibly antibiotic treatment.

Who's at Risk?

If you eat food, you are at risk for food-related illness. While there are more than 250 different types of food-related diseases, this is one common illness you can avoid.Here are 6 tips that can help you protect yourself:

1: Watch What You Buy

Make sure the food you or your parents buy is the freshest available. Check the packages for expiration or "use by" dates, and make sure you will have time to eat the food before it needs to be thrown out. When the use-by date passes, throw the food away to be safe.

Make sure that eggs have no cracks or thin places in the shells. Select cheese that is fresh and has no unusual mold or discolored spots. Dairy products should be dated and pasteurized. Avoid buying fruits or vegetables that are slippery, moldy, or have a funny odor. And never taste fresh fruits or vegetables in the store, as you have no idea what types of germs or pesticides are on them.

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2. Always Wash Fresh Fruits and Vegetables (Even If They Come In Prewashed Packages).

Remember the spinach scare across the United States in the fall of 2006 that resulted in several deaths? Fruits and vegetables can have some of the most deadly food-related pathogens, particularly if they are washed or irrigated with water that is contaminated with animal or human feces. These germs can get into fruits and vegetables during processing or packaging. And if the workers who packed the fruits and vegetables into crates are ill, these germs go right onto the foods they are touching.

Scrub all fresh fruits and vegetables to remove germs and avoid illness. This means rewashing any pre-washed, packaged salads before serving, to remove bacteria and pesticides that remain on the leaves.

3. Be Aware of "At Risk" Foods.

There are certain risky foods you need to be cautious about, such as raw bean sprouts. No matter how fresh they are, dangerous bacteria can continue to grow and may carry pathogens. (Cooked bean sprouts may be OK.)

Raw eggs are another risky food, and should be avoided. Also risky are juices that are not pasteurized. During the pasteurization process, any food-related bacteria are killed.

4. Cook Foods Thoroughly.

Foods need to be cooked thoroughly to kill any dangerous bacteria. Eggs must be cooked until the yolk is firm. If you are reheating leftovers, bring them to 165 degrees Fahrenheit to kill bacteria. Sauces and soups should be brought to a boil when they are reheated.

5. Keep Hot Foods Hot and Cold Foods Cold.

While foods may be safe immediately after cooking, if you allow them to stay on the counter for longer than two hours, deadly bacteria may start to reproduce. Store food immediately after cooking.

And keep cold foods cold. Do not defrost and then refreeze foods unless you first cook them.

6. Use Healthy Hygiene.

Before cooking or eating, wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and warm water (sing "Happy Birthday to You" to pass the time). Rub your hands together, as the friction of skin against skin will enable you to remove the germs. Also, wash hands frequently throughout the day.

WebMD Feature

Sources

SOURCES: CDC website. U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service website. U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition website.

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