When we talk about how serious of an issue food safety is, everyone has their own perceptions based on their experience and knowledge. However, most of us will agree that children and the elderly are most at risk, although food poisoning can strike anyone, anywhere and anytime. The Center for Disease Control estimates that every year in the United States, 48 million people get sick, 125,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die due to food poisoning.

Yet despite these crisis-level statistics, food poisoning is often treatable and preventable. What can you do when food poisoning strikes? Here are three important things to know.

Know the Symptoms
Food poisoning often includes such common symptoms as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, cramps, and fever.

  • There are also less frequent and more serious symptoms such as blurred vision, nerve tingling, or an overall feeling of weakness or fatigue.
  • One of the deadliest and most immediate symptoms of food poisoning is dehydration, which can lead to the onset of severe illness and death.
  • Drinking fluids is important to alleviate the dangers of dehydration. Water and electrolytes can restore fluid balances, barley or rice water can reduce inflammation and probiotics can restore the balance of good bacteria in the intestine.

Food poisoning symptoms usually occur and clear up within hours. However, some symptoms can appear weeks later and persist for months.

Know the Causes
The primary causes of food poisoning are bacteria or viral agents.

  • Many types of contaminants occur in certain foods. For example, campylobacter and salmonella occur in meat and poultry, shigella occurs in shellfish, and rotovirus occurs in ready-to-eat produce.
  • Sometimes the agent is a toxin that may be produced by the organism or bacteria. Botulism, a rare but potentially fatal poison, is produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. Within their bodies, pufferfish secrete tetradotoxin, which doesn’t harm them but can be fatal to other fish and especially humans.

Artificial compounds such as industrial chemicals can also find their way into food and cause illness.

Know the Actions to Take
The type of food and its physical appearance can be a red flag to seek medical attention even before symptoms appear.

  • Moldy bread can contain mycotoxins and improperly sealed jars may contain botulism.
  • Poisonous mushrooms can be distinguished from non-poisonous.
  • Pufferfish are deadly unless properly prepared by a trained and licensed chef.

In most cases, food poisoning symptoms are mild and full recovery occurs within a week. Medical attention is warranted for severe initial symptoms or lingering symptoms such as difficulty in breathing or nerve damage.

  • For mild cases, home remedies such as arsenicum, chamomilla, podophyllum, and sulfur may be effective. After ingesting a suspected source of food poisoning, herbal remedies may be tried to forestall the onset of symptoms.
  • For mushroom poisoning, medical treatment is often needed to avoid serious consequences.
  • However, if you’re in a situation where medical treatment is unavailable, pharmaceutical silibinin (the active component in milk thistle) might be effective up to forty-eight hours after eating poison mushrooms.
  • For tetradotoxin poisoning from pufferfish, paralysis followed by death can result without immediate medical attention.

Preventing Food Poisoning
Food contamination can occur at any stage in the food production process, anywhere from farm and ranch to restaurant and home.

  • Avoiding unknown or unreliable food sources can be effective in preventing contaminated food from reaching the consumer.
  • In kitchens and other food preparation areas, contamination can be avoided by washing hands, cooking utensils, and preparation surfaces with hot, soapy water.
  • Keeping food refrigerated inhibits bacterial growth and cooking food at correct temperatures will kill bacteria.
  • Botulism spores can be killed by boiling or heating in a pressure cooker.

Foods such as pufferfish and certain mushrooms may contain toxins for which washing hands and other measures to inhibit bacterial food poisoning will be ineffective. Awareness and avoidance of hazardous foods in these cases is sometimes the only way to prevent food poisoning.

For more information, visit Careworks.

Author:  Sarah Vidumsky, PA-C

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