Consuming contaminated foods and beverages can lead to foodborne illnesses. Also called food poisoning, these conditions can be caused by living organisms like bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Some of the names you may hear are norovirus, Salmonella, Clostridium perfringens, Campylobacter, E. coli, Listeria monocytogenes, Shigella, and Toxoplasma gondii. Chemicals and toxins in things you eat and drink can also make you sick. This article provides information on the symptoms of foodborne illnesses and what to do if you contract one.
Foodborne Illness Symptoms
The symptoms of an illness from contaminated food or beverage vary based on what’s causing them. But, in general, you may experience some or all the following:
- Abdominal pain
- Diarrhea (including bloody diarrhea)
- Low-grade fever
If you become dehydrated, that state can cause symptoms such as:
- Lightheadedness (especially upon standing)
- Excessive thirst
- Less frequent urination
- Dark-colored urine
People at Higher Risk of Severe Illness
Foodborne illnesses can be more dangerous for people in any of these groups:
- Pregnant people
- Older adults
- Infants and young children
- People with chronic diseases or receiving treatments like chemotherapy
Common Causes of Foodborne Illness
Any contaminated food can cause food poisoning. However, some items are more likely to harbor pathogens or toxins, including:
- Raw foods from animals, like meat, poultry, eggs, shellfish, and unpasteurized milk
- Unpasteurized fruit juices and ciders
- Fruits and vegetables fertilized with manure and not properly cleaned
- Any item handled by someone who’s sick and that’s not subsequently cooked (salads, etc.)
Whether you develop a foodborne illness from contaminated food depends on several factors, including the amount of the pathogen you ingest, your overall health, and others.
How to Treat a Foodborne Illness
If you contract a foodborne illness, these actions can help you recover:
- Drink small amounts of fluid frequently. Food poisoning can dehydrate you, so you need to keep consuming fluids. However, drinking too much too fast can make you nauseous and cause vomiting. So, it’s best to take frequent small sips of water or sports drinks.
- Monitor your urination. You should urinate regularly, and your urine should be light-colored or clear. If it’s dark, you may be dehydrated. Contact your doctor if you can’t keep enough fluids down to stay hydrated.
- Avoid antidiarrheal medications. Diarrhea is uncomfortable and inconvenient, but it helps remove pathogens or toxins from your body. Taking medication to slow or stop it may hinder your recovery. And you should never give antidiarrheal medications to infants or young children as serious side effects can occur.
Food poisoning typically resolves in 12 to 48 hours.
Tips for Preventing Foodborne Illnesses
To avoid food poisoning when eating out, choose restaurants you trust or recommended by people or authorities you trust. And if a dish looks, smells, or tastes odd, don’t consume it.
At home, you can reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses by taking these actions:
- Wash your hands thoroughly before preparing food or consuming handheld items (tacos, corn on the cob, etc.).
- Ensure your food preparation surfaces and utensils are clean.
- Cook foods to the recommended temperatures.
- Refrigerate foods requiring cool temperatures until just before serving them. Return unused portions to the refrigerator promptly.
- Keep different types of foods apart from each other. For example, don’t let lettuce for a salad come into contact with uncooked meat.
When to Contact Your Doctor About a Foodborne Illness
Contact your Baptist Health primary care physician if you experience any of the following symptoms:
- Vomiting that lasts for more than two days
- Diarrhea that doesn’t resolve after several days
- Bloody, black, or tarry diarrhea
- Fever of 101 degrees Fahrenheit or higher
- Lightheadedness or fainting when you stand
- Concerning abdominal pain
Get immediate medical attention if you’re in a high-risk group or experience any of the following:
- Severe abdominal pain
- Watery diarrhea that turns bloody within 24 hours
- Symptoms of botulism (a life-threatening condition caused by toxins sometimes found in home-canned goods), include blurred vision, headache, muscle weakness or paralysis, nausea, vomiting, constipation, lack of urination, trouble breathing, or dry mouth
Foods from trusted sources or carefully prepared at home pose a minimal threat of foodborne illnesses. But it’s a good idea to know the symptoms, just in case.
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