How to Avoid Food Poisoning
by Robert Fusco, MD
It catches you by surprise. One moment you are feeling fine and then you unexpectedly experience a bout of crampy abdominal pain, then comes the urgency and diarrhea, and perhaps some nausea. You feel just terrible, but in a day or two, it all passes and you tell your friends you just had a "twenty-four hour virus." Actually, your diagnosis may be wrong as many of these episodes can be traced to food poisoning. Believe it or not, despite all of our efforts in public health and sanitation, food poisoning is becoming more and more common in this country with over 200,000 cases diagnosed every day. Of course, many millions more go unreported.
What Is Food Poisoning?
Most of the food that you eat is not sterile. All raw foods and cooled cooked foods contain bacteria, or "germs." Normally, these bacteria are present only in small numbers and are destroyed by your body's natural defense system before you even know they are there. However, if the conditions are right, these few bacteria rapidly multiply within the food and before you know it, that piece of chicken has become a weapon.
This is especially true if the germs happen to be disease-causing bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli, and Campylobacter. Crampy abdominal pain, diarrhea, and nausea usually develop within a few hours of eating contaminated food. Symptoms may be mild or severe depending upon the degree of contamination and your body's natural immunity. Cases of food poisoning are seen all year round, but summer is a prime time, because bacteria multiply faster in the warmer temperatures.
E. coli is a common bacteria that lives in the digestive tracts of humans and animals. Some E. coli strains sicken people; one strain -- E. coli O157 -- is highly toxic, causing bloody diarrhea and severe cramps and sometimes even kidney damage or death. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate E. coli 0157 sickens up to 110,000 Americans each year, killing several hundred.
Why Does It Happen?
Health officials usually give two answers: improper food storage by consumers and poor personal hygiene of food handlers - a rather unpleasant thought. Even though outbreaks occurring in restaurants are what make the nightly news, the truth is that most cases of food poisoning occur because of improper food handling and sloppy hygiene in the home itself.
Who Is At Risk?
We all are, but some more so than others. While anyone can develop symptoms of food poisoning: the young, the pregnant, and the elderly are much more susceptible. While those with chronic illnesses and weakened immunity have a higher risk, the majority of cases of food poisoning occur in healthy individuals.
What Is The Treatment?
The usual treatment is to get plenty of rest and drink a lot of fluids (like Gatorade) to prevent dehydration. The diet should be restricted for a few days to "rest the bowel." Many people follow the BRATT diet for a day or two - bananas, rice, applesauce, tea, and toast. Two nonprescription remedies, Pepto-Bismol and Imodium AD, may be used to control mild to moderate diarrhea. However, if severe diarrhea, fever over 102 degrees F., persistent vomiting, severe weakness occur or any passage of blood develop, medical care should be sought promptly.
How Can You Avoid Food Poisoning?
You can't. Unless you live in a sterile bubble, you are always exposed to some bacteria and the risk of food poisoning. But, if you are healthy and the number of bacteria in your food is small, your natural immune system can protect you - most of the time. The trick is to avoid eating foods that contain so many harmful bacteria that you overwhelm your body's defense system and become ill.
Most of us are too trusting of our American food safety system. Our food chain is now much longer that it was in the past, and many strangers come in contact with our food before it ever reaches our table. You can no longer be complacent and assume your food is safe. You must take the opposite approach. The most important thing you can do to prevent food poisoning is to adopt a "food-is-dangerous" attitude. You should handle all raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs as if they were contaminated - because they often are. For example, up to 80% of supermarket chickens that you bring into your home are contaminated with Salmonella or Campylobacter because of the mechanized de-feathering and evisceration processes.
Food Safety Tips
The best treatment is still prevention. Whether you are planning an elaborate dinner or a simple cookout on the grill, it is important that you add the most important ingredient - food safety. Below are some tips that can improve your odds: