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Food Poisoning and How to Avoid It

Barbecue season is in full swing and it’s a good time to review food safety. Foodborne illness, commonly referred to as “food poisoning,” is something that almost all of us have experienced at some point in our lives. Foodborne illness is defined as more than two people having a similar illness with evidence of food as the source.

There are approximately 76 million cases of food-related illness in the United States each year. There are also around 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths. Underdeveloped countries, as a group, experience about one billion cases annually and four to six million deaths. The overall rate of these illnesses in the United States has gone down drastically in the last century with improvements in food handling and sanitation.

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 97 percent of all cases of food-borne illness arise from improper food handling. Commercial establishments account for 79 percent of the cases, while the other 21 percent originate in homes.

There are a few common denominators found in most cases of food poisoning. A frequent cause is foods in environmental conditions that allow bacterial growth to occur. Staphylococcal food poisoning typically happens in the summer months when food is left out in warm temperatures. Common summer foods like potato salad and pies that are high in salt or sugar are prime breeding ground for bacterial growth.

Raw or undercooked meat is another common source of food poisoning; hence the warning to check to make sure cooked meat is not pink in the middle. Cross-contamination between raw and cooked foods can lead to problems. This happens when raw food that contains organisms or toxins comes into contact with cooked food. Food preparers who don’t wash their hands can transfer bacteria or toxins as well.

Most foodborne illnesses result in some combination of diarrhea, vomiting and abdominal cramping. The organisms that cause problems do so by various means, too numerous to mention here. Diarrhea caused by infectious organisms or toxins can be classified as inflammatory or non-inflammatory, depending on how the offending agent affects the victim’s gastrointestinal tract.

Inflammatory diarrhea involves actual injury to the cells that line the intestine. Organisms that cause this inflammation can invade the wall of the intestine and enter the body, causing an immune reaction. Salmonella is a well-known pathogen that causes this type of diarrhea.

Inflammatory diarrhea usually results in smaller stools that can be bloody, also known as dysentery. Sufferers usually run a fever, have abdominal pain, possibly a headache,and look ill. A severe inflammatory response may lead to liver and kidney damage as well.

Toxins produced by infectious organisms cause non-inflammatory diarrhea. The toxins act on the cells in the gut causing the release of water and salt into the intestines. This, in turn, results in large volumes of diarrhea without blood or severe abdominal pain.

Ninety percent of cases of food-borne illness resolve in two to three days without needing any medical attention. Infants and the elderly are the most likely to develop complications, mostly from dehydration.

People who are ill for more than two or three days with high fevers, severe abdominal pain, or lethargy should always seek medical attention.

The primary aim of treatment for foodborne illnesses is to avoid dehydration. This can usually be accomplished by consuming fluids by mouth. Even if a person is vomiting, they can usually keep down small amounts of fluid given at frequent intervals.

There are many over-the-counter remedies to use to prevent dehydration or to rehydrate someone who has already become dehydrated. A simple and inexpensive recipe to make at home is to add two level teaspoons of salt and eight heaping teaspoons of sugar to a two liter bottle of water.

Damage to the intestinal wall can affect the ability to absorb sugars from food. People should therefore avoid milk, dairy, and foods containing lactose during the illness and for a few days afterward.

Remember that proper food preparation and handling can go a long way to prevent interruptions to your summer fun.

– Dr. John Roberts is a member of the Franciscan Physician Network specializing in Family Medicine.