What Is Food Poisoning and How Do You Prevent It?

Food poisoning is a common term used to refer to an illness called Foodborne. It results from the consumption of contaminated, toxic or spoiled foods or drinks. The contamination can be from harmful pathogens such as bacteria, parasites or viruses.

These pathogens are infectious and can contaminate foods at any stage of processing. Incorrect handling of food before or after being cooked at home can lead to its contamination and hence result into food poisoning.

This illness can be quite uncomfortable and may last for hours or days, depending on the severity. It is very common and according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 48 million people contract this illness every year. That is 1 in every 6 Americans.

What are the Causes of Food Poisoning?

Food can easily become contaminated at any point of its production by a host of various pathogens. These pathogens can get into contact with food during growing, processing, shipping, when being cooked or during the actual consumption.

According to CDC, about 250 foodborne diseases have been identified by researchers each with a different causal organism. Besides the usual bacteria, parasites and viruses, chemicals and harmful toxins can also cause food poisoning if allowed to come in contact with food. Here are the three major causes of food poisoning.

1. Parasites

Reported cases of parasites causing food poisoning are not that many. This does not make the parasites spread through food contact any less dangerous. The most common parasite is Toxoplasma. This parasite normally resides in your cat’s litter box.

After getting into the body, these parasites can take up residence in the digestive system for years without being detected. Pregnant ladies and those with weakened immune systems are the most susceptible to side effects resulting from parasitic food poisoning.

2. Bacteria

This is the most prevalent causal organism causing food poisoning. Topping this list though is Salmonella. Data from CDC shows that Salmonella causes about a million foodborne diseases in the United States. 19,000 of these are hospitalizations while another 380 die from Salmonella food poisoning.

The symptoms start to develop after 12-72 hours from the time you are infected. The illness would then last for up to 7 days, after which some of the victims recover naturally. In some people, it becomes severe and they have to be hospitalized. Salmonella can take residence in pets (turtles) or even poultry.

3. Viruses

Viruses too cause food poisoning.  Norwalk virus, which is also known as Norovirus, is one of the culprits when it comes to viral food poisoning. This virus is known to cause most of the acute gastroenteritis in all the age groups in the US.

This virus can be contracted at any time of the year, although it tends to be more prevalent during winter. There is always a new strain of the virus at some point in the year which causes a majority of the cases of norovirus illness.

Other viruses include Rotavirus, Sapovirus and Astrovirus. These have the same symptoms as Norovirus, though they are less common. Another type of virus that is transferable through food is Hepatitis A.

Some of the agents that cause food poisoning can be found here.

Food Poisoning Inforgraphic

Signs and Symptoms of Food Poisoning

The exact symptoms that you develop after food poisoning vary in severity and how they are manifest depending on the causal organ, the density of the causes in the system and your immune system’s ability to fight it off.

The symptoms can begin after a couple of hours or days after consuming the contaminated drink or food. Some of the common symptoms are and include:

  • Symptoms of Food PoisoningNausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea (The excretes may contain mucus or blood)
  • Abdominal pain or stomach cramps
  • Loss of appetite
  • Energy loss
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Aching muscles

These food poisoning symptoms may last for a few days or hours before subsiding after some time without seeking any medical attention. However, if these signs and symptoms continue to persist, you need to visit a doctor soon. Severe cases of food poisoning are characterized by:

  • Vomiting Food Poisoning.jpgContinued diarrhea exceeding three days
  • Frequent vomiting episodes
  • Bloody vomits and tools
  • Severe abdominal cramping
  • Extreme abdominal pain
  • Blurry vision, continued muscle weakness and arm tingling
  • Oral temperatures exceeding 380C

How Does Food Become Contaminated?

The foods we eat can have traces of pathogens at any stage of its preparation. Foods that are eaten raw are the leading causes of food poisoning because of the presence of pathogens on them. Cooking food kills pathogens as they cannot withstand the high temperatures. Here are some of the ways in which food may become contaminated.

  • Not properly cooking the food, particularly poultry and meat
  • Not following the right chilling temperatures of certain foods
  • Not reheating food that had been previously cooked
  • Handling foods with dirty hands
  • An ill person being allowed to handle food
  • Consuming food that has already passed its sell-by date

Foods More Susceptible to Contamination

Here are some of the foods that will get contaminated easily than others when proper handling methods are not practiced.

  1. Unpasteurized milk
  2. Ready to eat foods such as cheese
  3. Foods that are normally eaten raw such as fruits
  4. Raw poultry and beef

Who is at More Risk of Experiencing Food Poisoning?

There is no one who is exempted from experiencing food poisoning. Actually, nearly everyone will experience it at some point in their lives. There are those who are at more risk of coming down with food poisoning than others. But who are they?

  • Pregnant women: During pregnancy, the changes in circulation and metabolism in ladies makes them at more risk of experiencing food poisoning. Their reactions may also be very severe than usual.
  • Older adults: As one gets older, their immune system loses its niche when it comes to shrugging off diseases and pathogens. The response is not as quick as it used to be.
  • Infants & teens: At this age, the immune system is not that well adept at dealing with some infections. The viruses and bacteria may overwhelm the system unlike in adults.
  • People suffering from chronic diseases: chronic diseases reduce the responsiveness of the immune system to infectious pathogens. Such diseases include AIDS, Cancer, diabetes and liver disease.

Diagnosis of Food Poisoning

If you experience any of the aforementioned signs and symptoms, it may not automatically mean that you are suffering from a foodborne disease. There could be a whole lot of other diseases that may manifest themselves in the same way.

You need to visit a doctor as soon as possible, especially if the symptoms persist. The diagnosis may be in the form of a physical examination, asking questions about the history of the illness, patient explaining how he/she came to experience the suspect infection and laboratory tests.

The laboratory tests are the surest means of diagnosing food poisoning. Tests are carried out on samples of the suspect food you took (if you still have it), blood samples and stool tests. Tests can be performed on the patient’s urine samples to examine the extent of the dehydration resulting from food poisoning.

It is from these tests that a conclusive diagnosis can be arrived at and a way forward drawn.

Can Food Poisoning Be Treated?

Some cases of food poisoning normally subside without any treatment after some time. This can happen after some hours or days without the intervention of medicinal treatments. Severe cases require the intervention of medical treatments after being confirmed by a qualified professional.

This illness is very treatable if you seek medical attention in time. It can also be very fatal if neglected. The health professional will prescribe for you a medication based on your symptoms and health conditions. Some people are allergic to certain drugs, and this may also cause this temporary food poisoning.

Home Remedies for Food Poisoning

If you are not in a position to seek medical care immediately, there are certain remedies you can partake to keep the poisoning under check. The first step is always to keep the affected individual dehydrated. The vomiting and diarrhea rid the body of fluids.

The person can be given plenty of fresh, clean drinking water or a balanced solution of electrolytes. To curb the fatigue, coconut water and fruit juice restores carbohydrates.

If you suspect you are suffering from food poisoning, it is essential to avoid caffeine. These drinks irritate the digestive tract further. Peppermint, dandelion and chamomile soothing herbs can be added to decaffeinated teas as a relief for an upset stomach.

If you experience diarrhea, avoid solid foods as much as possible. Take more of easy to digest foods such as bananas, rice, saltine crackers, oatmeal and bland potatoes among others.

Foods to Be Avoided When Dealing with Food Poisoning

These types of foods should be avoided as much as possible

  • Milk and cheese
  • Seasoned foods
  • Fatty foods
  • Too sugary foods
  • Fried foods
  • Alcohol
  • Caffeine
  • Nicotine

How Long Does Food Poisoning Last?

The duration the symptoms take to disappear vary from person A to person B. It also depends on the amount of poison in your system and the ability of the immune system to deal with it. Ciguatera poisoning can last for about 1 or 2 weeks before subsiding.

Some of the symptoms can last for about 24 hours or a couple of days.

Are Food Poisoning and Stomach Flu Referring to the Same Thing?

This is a question that troubles some people at times. Are the two illnesses the same? Well, it all depends on the causative agent. They are both transmitted through the consumption of contaminated foods.

Stomach flu can be equated to viral gastroenteritis and is caused by rotavirus. It normally resolves itself within 24 hours. When the occurrence of stomach flu becomes rampant in a place where a group of people was having a meal, then it may be food poisoning.

Severe Cases of Food Poisoning

A simple case of Food poisoning can become complicated as time goes by. However, there are certain cases that become more severe than others. These are:

  • Listeria monocytogenes: Listeria food poisoning can become severe to an unborn baby if left unattended to. If it occurs in the early stages of pregnancy, miscarriages can result. Stillbirth, premature birth or baby infection can develop in the infant at later stages of the pregnancies in an affected pregnant woman.
  • Escherichia coli (E. Coli): Certain strains of E. Coli can be severe and lead to another severe case of hemolytic uremic syndrome. This may cause kidney failure as it damages the linings of blood vessels in the kidney. The higher risk individuals are more susceptible to this case of food poisoning.

Tips on the Prevention of Food Poisoning

Whoever came up with the proverb that says that prevention is better than cure was very right. It is much safer to prevent the occurrence of food poisoning than treating the illness itself. It all begins with how you handle the foods and the hygienic conditions under which it is prepared.

  • Wash raw foods such as vegetables and fruits thoroughly with warm water before consuming them.
  • Properly clean the counters, chopping boards, utensils and any item that will get into contact with the food.
  • Wash your hands before handling of foods and utensils
  • Do not mix raw and cooked food in the same utensil.
  • Wash knives after cutting raw foods before cutting cooked foods with it.
  • Cook meat at the right high temperatures. Beef (1600F), poultry (1800F) and fish (1400F)
  • At no time should you eat expired packaged
  • Refrigerate food leftovers
  • Avoid the consumption of wild mushrooms
  • Avoid unboiled/unfiltered drinking water
  • When in a gathering, wash fruits with antimicrobial rinse
  • Safely defrost foods
  • Do not eat foods that you are not sure of their preparation methods.
  • The groups of individuals that are at higher risks of experiencing food poisoning should not take soft cheeses.

Wrapping up

In conclusion, food poisoning or foodborne disease can be caused by the ingestion of foods containing pathogenic organisms. However, it is not such a severe condition and normally subsides by itself in most cases. Most of the cases of food poisoning can be prevented by maintaining high hygiene levels when preparing foods.

There are however severe cases resulting from the neglect of the developing symptoms. Pregnant women, older and younger infants and those suffering from chronic diseases are the most susceptible to these severe conditions. If your case of suspected food poisoning is taking too long to subside, seek immediate medical attention.