By Dr Zulfikar Bux
Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine
Food poisoning is a very common occurrence worldwide. Patients that have food poisoning will go through the bout and most often recover. A small few can become significantly dehydrated or develop a systemic infection. Children and the elderly are most often susceptible to this.
Today I will highlight some important facts about food poisoning so that we can all be more aware about this common condition.
WHAT IS FOOD POISONING?
Food poisoning is an illness that can cause nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. Food poisoning is caused by eating food that contains germs, such as bacteria, viruses, or parasites. Viruses are the most common causes of food poisoning. The norovirus is the most common viral cause of food poisoning. Two examples of bacteria that are common causes of food poisoning are Salmonella and E. coli.
HOW CAN GERMS GET IN FOOD?
Germs can get in food in different ways:
• People who are sick can spread their germs to the food they cook if they do not wash their hands before they touch the food.
• Germs can live in or on food. If food is not washed or cooked enough, the germs in it or on it can infect people. Foods that are left for long periods without proper storage will also harbour germs.
• Germs from one food can get on another food. This can happen when a person uses the same cutting board or knife to prepare different foods.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF FOOD POISONING?
Symptoms can happen right after a person eats the food, or not until days or weeks later. Common symptoms of food poisoning include:
• Nausea or vomiting
• Belly pain
• Diarrhea that can be watery or bloody
Other symptoms can include problems with the nervous system, such as blurry vision or feeling dizzy. But these problems are not as common.
IS THERE ANYTHING I CAN DO ON MY OWN TO FEEL BETTER?
Yes. You can:
• Drink enough liquids so that your body does not get “dehydrated.” Dehydration is when the body loses too much water.
• Eat small meals that do not have a lot of fat in them
• Rest, if you feel tired
WHEN SHOULD I SEE A DOCTOR?
See your doctor if you:
• Have severe belly pain
• Cannot eat or drink
• Vomit blood or have blood in your bowel movements
• Have a fever higher than 100.4°F (38°C)
Young children and older adults with symptoms should make sure to see their doctor or nurse. That’s because these groups can get dehydrated more easily.
DO I NEED TO HAVE TESTS?
Many people do not need to have tests. But it’s possible that your doctor will do tests to check if you are dehydrated or to figure out which germ caused your food poisoning. Your doctor might do:
• Blood tests
• Urine tests
• Tests on a sample of your bowel movement
HOW IS FOOD POISONING TREATED?
Many people do not need any treatment, because their symptoms will get better on their own. But some people need:
• Antibiotics – These medicines treat bacterial infections.
• Fluids through an “IV” – An IV is a thin tube that goes into your vein. People with a lot of diarrhea or vomiting might need IV fluids to treat or prevent dehydration.
Doctors do not usually recommend that people take anti-diarrhea medicines. That’s because these medicines can make the symptoms last longer.
CAN FOOD POISONING BE PREVENTED?
You can reduce your chance of getting food poisoning or spreading germs that can cause food poisoning by:
• Washing your hands after changing diapers, going to the bathroom, blowing your nose, touching animals, or taking out the trash
• Staying home from work or school until you feel better (if you are sick)
• Paying attention to food safety. Tips include:
• Not drinking unpasteurized milk or foods made with it
• Washing fruits and vegetables well before eating them
• Keeping the refrigerator colder than 40°F (4.4°C) and the freezer below 0°F (-18°C)
• Cooking meat and seafood until well done
• Cooking eggs until the yolk is firm
• Washing hands, knives, and cutting boards after they touch raw food.
Pregnant women and people whose bodies have trouble fighting off infections can do more things to prevent getting food poisoning. If you are pregnant or have trouble fighting off infections, talk to your doctor about other ways to prevent getting food poisoning.
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