The Rundown of Food Poisoning
Without proper food safety practices, outdoor meals this season might result in foodborne illnesses. UT Health Austin primary care clinicians, Scott Selinger, MD, FACP, and Kristin Vinueza, APRN, FNP, share their insight into what causes food poisoning and how you can prevent it.
Reviewed by: Scott Selinger, MD, FACP, and Kristin Vinueza, APRN, FNP
Written by: Kaylee Fang
Summer cookouts and picnics can quickly turn sour when not following food safety guidelines.
What is food poisoning?
Food poisoning can occur when you develop symptoms of illness after consuming food or water that is contaminated with germs including:
- Viruses: Norovirus, rotavirus
- Bacteria: Salmonella, E. coli
- Parasites: Giardia
The degree of food poisoning symptoms can range from mild to extremely serious. Depending on the germs transmitted, symptoms can vary. Most common symptoms of food poisoning are:
- Abdominal pain
- Loss of appetite
Food contamination can occur at any stage of production from planting to storing and even preparing. Cross-contamination is a common cause, which is the movement of bacteria from one surface to another. During meals this can be particularly problematic with raw, ready-to-eat foods, or other produce. Possible incidents causing food poisoning are:
- Spoiled food
- Poor hand hygiene
- Undercooked food
- Leaving food out for too long
“The longer the food sits out, the bacteria start to multiply to a point that it can be harmful,” says Dr. Selinger.
The bacteria, level of exposure, age, and health conditions all have a role in determining whether you or your loved ones become ill after eating contaminated food. All individuals are at risk for foodborne illness, which is why it’s important to take safe measures when handling food. Those high-risk groups include:
Infants and young persons. Immune systems haven’t fully developed at a young age. Dehydration is more likely to occur as well.
Pregnant persons. Changes in metabolism and circulation occur during pregnancy and can raise the risk of foodborne illness. Thus, the reaction may be more severe.
Older persons. As you get older, your immune system may not respond as effectively or quickly to bacteria. Seek help if you’re experiencing mobility issues, have difficulty swallowing, or have communication challenges.
Persons living with chronic conditions. Living with any major underlying health condition, such as diabetes or liver disease, reduces your immune response and becomes more susceptible to illness. In general, seek help if you can’t take care of yourself when starting to feel sick.
Traveling with resource-limited settings. If food isn’t heated, washed, or prepared properly, it can be unhealthy to consume. Be cautious while prepping and preparing foods that come in contact with kitchen tools.
Is food poisoning contagious?
Food poisoning can be spread through fecal oral contamination, which is how bacteria is transmitted secondarily from person to person. Since diarrhea is a common symptom of food poisoning, this presents an opportunity for the illness to spread. Poorly washed hands can contaminate various objects and surfaces including food utensils, doorknobs, kitchen surfaces, or light switches.
“If people who are sick handle food that is being prepared for others without proper hand washing, this can lead to community outbreaks,” says Kristin.
If you suspect you have food poisoning, prepare yourself, you may feel sick for a day or two. Make sure to drink enough water because you could lose a lot of fluids quickly. Sports drinks and Pedialyte can also be consumed because they contain salt and sugars that are beneficial to the body. Try to replenish any fluids that you may loose from the effects of food poisoning.
Dr. Selinger suggests having over-the-counter medication at home in case it is needed. His recommendations include:
- Anti-diarrhea medicine, such as bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol®) or loperamide (Imodium®)
- Pain relievers and fever reducers, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol®) and ibuprofen (Advil®)
- Probiotics may reduce the effects of stomach upsets, such as Saccharomyces boulardii
If you’re living with medical conditions or taking other medications, check with your healthcare provider before taking any action.
Foods and Drinks
On the first day, stick with liquids. When you can keep those down, the next step is to try the BRAT diet. BRAT stands for:
Ginger or ginger-based substances can help with nausea. Other foods to try:
- Boiled starches
- Saltine crackers
When should you see a healthcare provider?
If symptoms are getting worse, consider consulting a healthcare provider. Some symptoms to watch out for are:
- High fever over 100.4 °F
- Bloody stool or vomit
- Unable to keep down oral fluids
- Dehydration: dizziness, dry mouth, muscle cramps, confusion, or decreased to no urine
- Diarrhea lasting more than 3 days or more than 6 episodes within a 24-hour period
- Traveling back from overseas
- Severe abdominal pain
The first day or two is usually the worst. Then, you will gradually start to improve. At times, it can take weeks to months for everything to get entirely back to normal in your gastrointestinal tract. You may have a hard time tolerating dairy for several days or weeks.
“90% of Americans experiencing food poisoning or other foodborne illness are self-limited, which means they will get better on their own with time” explains Dr. Selinger.
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