What is Food Poisoning?
Food poisoning is any illness or disease caused by eating contaminated, spoiled, or toxic food. Food poisoning is also known as Foodborne illness, Foodborne disease, or Foodborne infections. The majority of food poisoning cases are common, mild, and resolve within a few hours. Most people with food poisoning get better even without medical treatment. Although rare, food poisoning can sometimes be severe and life threatening.
Food poisoning symptoms often occur within a few hours of eating contaminated food. This is called the food poisoning onset. However, the food poisoning timeline depends on the source of the infection, and symptoms can take from 1 to 28 days to appear. The duration of food poisoning symptoms, or food poisoning duration, can also vary.
Common and mild food poisoning symptoms often appear in groups of three or more.
These symptoms include:
- Stomach cramps
- Minor fever
- Feeling nauseous
- Reduced appetite
The following symptoms are associated with severe food poisoning:
- High fever: A fever over 101.5 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Problem with vision: You may have trouble seeing clearly.
- Problem speaking: You may have trouble speaking.
- Severe dehydration: You may experience dry mouth, reduced urination, or vomiting fluids.
- Diarrhea: Although uncomfortable from onset, this symptom becomes serious when it lasts longer than 3 days.
- Blood in urine or stool: You may see some amount of blood in your urine or stool when using the restroom. This symptom could indicate a serious medical condition.
If you or anyone you love experiences any of these serious symptoms, please contact your Baptist Health provider immediately. Untreated, these symptoms can cause brain or nerve damage, kidney failure, chronic arthritis, or even death.
The three main causes of food poisoning are bacteria, parasites, and viruses. Each one of these common types of food poisoning causes has unique characteristics that distinguish it from the other causes.
Bacteria is the most common cause of food poisoning. Bacteria often responsible for causing food poisoning are Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria, Campylobacter and C. botulinum. In the United States, Salmonella causes more food poisoning than any other bacteria. Campylobacter and C. botulinum are potentially lethal bacteria.
Parasites can also cause food poisoning. The most common parasite responsible for food poisoning is Toxoplasmosis, a parasite typically found in cat litter boxes. It is possible for parasites to live inside your digestive system for years without detection. Women who are pregnant, or anyone with a diminished immune system, can experience serious side effects from undetected and untreated parasites.
Viruses such as norovirus, sapovirus, astrovirus, and Hepatitis A can also cause food poisoning. The norovirus is the most common virus that causes food poisoning. Most of the time it is not life-threatening.
Several food poisoning symptoms, if left untreated, can lead to long-term health complications. The longer the food poisoning duration, the more complications can arise. The most common serious complication is dehydration. However, if you are a healthy adult and drink lots of water to replace fluid loss from vomiting and diarrhea, you should not experience any long-term health consequences.
Other symptoms that can cause long term complications include bloody stool or urine, vision or speaking difficulty, prolonged diarrhea, and high fever, sometimes called food poisoning fever.
Certain groups of people (or populations) are more at risk for serious side effects and complications due to food poisoning. We recommend that anyone in these groups who experiences food poisoning symptoms to contact their doctor as soon as possible.
Groups of people most at risk for food poisoning include:
- Pregnant women:
- Older adults
- Young children or Infants
Pregnant women are most at risk due to their changing metabolism and circulatory system. Older adults often have a weaker immune system, so they are more susceptible to food poisoning. Anyone with a weakened immune system is vulnerable. Young children or infants are at risk because of their undeveloped immune system. Children are often especially affected by dehydration due to diarrhea and vomiting.
Food poisoning treatment does not usually require hospitalization or treatment at a hospital. Most of the time, treatment for food poisoning can be accomplished at home. Your doctor will likely prescribe increasing fluids for hydration, avoiding caffeinated beverages that can worsen dehydration, getting plenty of rest, and possibly taking medication to treat symptoms of nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. We recommend checking with your doctor before taking any kind of medicine for food poisoning, even common over-the-counter medicine. Most food poisoning cases resolve within three to five days without any long-term health consequences.
Preventing Food Poisoning
Food poisoning is a highly preventable condition. Older adults, pregnant women, and anyone with a weakened immune system might particularly benefit from taking precautions to avoid food poisoning.
You can help prevent food poisoning by following the guidelines listed below:
- Wash your hands. Regular and thorough hand washing is one of the best ways to prevent food poisoning.
- Wash food preparation and eating utensils. Wash anything that comes in contact with your food thoroughly and often. It is a recommended best practice to wash with warm, soapy water.
- Wash food preparation and eating surfaces. Regular cleaning of services where food is prepared or eaten can also help prevent food poisoning.
- Refrigerate perishable foods within two hours of purchase. After you purchase or prepare food, try to refrigerate or freeze perishable within two hours. If the room temperature is above 90 F (32.2 C), refrigerate perishable foods as soon as possible (and within one hour).
- When in doubt, throw it out. If you are uncertain or suspicious about the safety of any food, the best precaution is to throw it out. Avoid tasting food that may be contaminated or spoiled. Food can look, smell, and taste fine yet still be contaminated.
- Safely defrost food. Avoid thawing food at room temperature. Instead, defrost frozen food slowly in the refrigerator. However, if you choose to defrost food using the microwave, we recommend that you cook the food immediately.
- Cook foods to safe temperatures. Cooking foods to safe temperatures can kill bacteria that could cause food poisoning. Different foods have different safe cooking temperatures. The most accurate way to cook your food to a safe temperature is too use a food thermometer. We recommend that you ensure that all meats, especially fish, are cooked thoroughly and to recommended safe temperatures.
- Separate raw food from cooked food. You can decrease the risk of food poisoning by separating raw food from other food when shopping, storing food or cooking.
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