If you haven’t experienced food poisoning yourself, chances are you know someone who did. That’s because this common health condition affects 1 in 6 Americans every year, according to the CDC. While most people know some basic information about food poisoning, many are surprised to learn that the condition can lead to severe illness and even death. 128,000 Americans are hospitalized each year due to foodborne illness. Unfortunately, 3,000 of those patients will die as a result.
On a positive note, food poisoning is pretty straightforward, and it’s easy to tell if your food made you sick. The most common symptoms are hard to miss (think nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea)! One minute you’re enjoying your delicious food or drink; in as little as a couple of hours, you’re stuck wherever you can find the closest bathroom.
Let’s take a closer look at everything you need to know about food poisoning. By the end of this article, you’ll learn the causes, symptoms, and when to see a doctor. You’ll also get some great tips on preventing food contamination, so you won’t have to deal with any of this in the first place.
What Is Food Poisoning?
Food poisoning, also referred to as foodborne disease, is caused by contaminated food or beverages. Since bacteria live all around us, it’s easy for bacteria to come in contact with the food and liquids we consume. While some bacteria are good, harmful bacteria can cause you to get sick. When you eat food or drink fluids that contain harmful bacteria, food poisoning occurs. Food and liquids are often contaminated by germs, toxins, parasites, or viruses. When you consume food or beverages that are contaminated by any of these, you experience gastrointestinal symptoms as your body tries to digest what you just ate or drank. This is food poisoning.
The reason food poisoning is so common isn’t just because of the prevalence of harmful bacteria in our society. It’s because there are so many opportunities for our food and drinks to come in contact with contaminants. These include:
Most cases of food poisoning are mild, but some are severe. That’s why it’s critical to understand the causes, symptoms, treatment, and prevention methods.
Who Is at Risk?
Unfortunately, when it comes to food poisoning, no one is entirely safe from dealing with the condition at some point in their lives. That’s because we all need to eat and drink to survive. While you can get food poisoning at any time in your life, some groups of individuals face a higher risk. The risk is especially true for individuals whose immune system is not as effective at fighting germs and illness, leaving them more susceptible to the disease. The risk of getting food poisoning might be higher for:
- Infants and children, especially those under 5 years of age
- Senior citizens or adults over 65 years of age
- Individuals with a compromised immune system or immunodepression
- Individuals with chronic health conditions, especially one that requires certain medications like chemotherapy drugs. Those with the following health conditions may be at an even higher risk:
- Liver disease
- Kidney disease
- Pregnant women
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Food Poisoning?
Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea are the most common signs that you have food poisoning. In some cases, you might also experience the following symptoms:
- Abdominal pain or stomach cramps
- Mild fever
- Muscle Aches
- Loss of Appetite
A sure sign that you have symptoms of food poisoning is found by looking or talking to those around you. If you recently ate or drank something with a group of people who suddenly have the same symptoms, you most likely consumed food or drink that was contaminated.
Common Causes of Foodborne Illness
The most common way to contaminate food is through a process called cross-contamination. When raw foods come in contact with foods that don’t need to be cooked to eat, cross-contamination occurs. That’s why unwashed fruits and vegetables or ready-to-eat foods should never come in contact with raw foods. In addition to cross-contamination, improper storage and cooking methods lead to food poisoning.
Just as the condition is common, so are the contaminants that lead to foodborne illness. There are over 250 different bacteria, viruses, and parasites that cause food poisoning. What are the most common culprits? Let’s break it down.
- Bacteria- Infectious agents are the leading cause of food poisoning. The most common types of bacteria to cause illness are E.coli, Listeria, and Salmonella.
- Viruses- Next to bacteria, viral infections are the second leading cause of food poisoning. The most common are the Norovirus, Rotavirus, and Hepatitis A.
- Parasites- In some cases, parasites can be ingested with food or water. The most common are tapeworm, roundworm, and Protozoa.
- Chemicals- Certain chemicals are considered toxins when they enter the body. Chemicals such as mercury, pesticides, and lead can lead to illness when they get into your food or drink.
The following foods are most commonly associated with foodborne illness:
- Other dairy products
Food Contamination Prevention Tips
Despite considerable advances in food production and safety requirements, food poisoning is sometimes unavoidable. Fortunately, there are several things you can do to prevent foodborne illness. The best food poisoning prevention methods fall under the following categories when it comes to food preparation, cooking, and storage:
- Always wash your hands thoroughly before you prepare food.
- Wash any surfaces or utensils that will come in contact with your food with soap and hot water. Do the same after using surfaces and cooking tools.
- Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly before consumption.
- Avoid touching your face or mouth during the food preparation and cooking stages.
- Since cross-contamination is one of the most common causes of foodborne illness, keep foods separate from each other. Pay close attention to raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs. Keep them away from other foods until they are thoroughly cooked.
- Don’t let ready-to-eat foods come in contact with raw foods or surfaces and utensils used to cook raw foods.
- Keep potential breeders of bacteria away from the general cooking vicinity. These include diapers, dog bags, and cat litter.
- Only eat properly cooked food. For example, if the chicken you’re eating looks pink inside, it’s better to be safe and avoid consumption.
- Reheat food to the recommended cooking temperatures.
- Follow the recommended guidelines for safe minimum food temperatures when cooking, reheating, and serving. Federal food safety information regarding internal food temperatures can be found here.
- Cover and refrigerate food right away, if possible.
- Refrigerate perishable items within an hour and cooked foods within 2 hours.
- Defrost foods safely. Never leave frozen food on the counter to defrost because bacteria grow at room temperature.
- Defrost in your fridge and cook immediately.
If you are at a higher risk of contracting a foodborne illness, avoid the following:
- Raw, uncooked fish like sushi
- Hot dogs
- Deli meats
- Ground beef
- Unpasteurized milk, cheese, or juice
- Raw fruit
- Raw vegetables
Additionally, check all expiration dates and follow them carefully. Use your senses. If something smells, tastes, or looks wrong, it probably is. When in doubt, throw it out!
When to See a Doctor or Visit the Nearest Urgent Care
While most cases of food poisoning resolve on their own in a few days, the condition can become severe. If you experience the following symptoms, you must seek medical care right away:
- Fever over 102?
- Bloody stool, urine, or vomit
- Signs of dehydration
- Dry mouth
- Little to no urination
- Diarrhea for more than 3 days
- Blurry vision
- Numbness or tingling in your extremities
- Difficulty speaking
- A continued inability to keep down liquids
- Extreme or severe abdominal pains
A medical care provider should be able to diagnose a foodborne illness based on your symptoms. In severe cases, a blood or stool test may be conducted. Most cases can be treated at home for 3-5 days with electrolyte drinks, increased hydration, rest, and over-the-counter medications. Severe cases may require hospitalization to administer IV fluids and monitor your condition.
If you experience persistent or worsening signs of food poisoning, visit your nearest urgent care facility. At University Urgent Care, our board-certified nurse practitioners are available 7 days a week to see you. Our new urgent care facility is located near the TCU campus in Fort Worth, Texas, but our services aren’t limited to university students and staff. We treat all patients and provide quality medical care to individuals of all ages.
Our compassionate staff is here to answer your questions and address your urgent care medical concerns. With minimal wait times, you’ll be seen quickly so you can get the medical care you need to feel better fast. Contact University Urgent Care at (817) 697-0700 or book an appointment online.