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Food Poisoning Symptoms And Everything Else You Need To Know

05/13/2015 01:28 EDT | Updated 05/25/2015 01:59 EDT
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Now that spring is solidly here, we can think about having picnics and cooking meat on the grill. But we should also consider how we’ll do all these things safely — while food poisoning is a risk at any time of year, the warmer temperatures of spring and summer add particular risks

None of us wants to be one of the approximately four million cases of foodborne illness in Canada every year, according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Food poisoning — or more technically, foodborne illness — is caused by eating food contaminated by either infectious organisms like bacteria, viruses, and parasites or the toxins created by those organisms. These are some of the most common contaminants:

• Campylobacter: Meat and poultry; symptoms appear in two to five days

• Clostridium botulinum: Improperly canned foods and food kept too long at warm temperatures; 12 to 72 hours

• E. coli: Beef contaminated with feces during slaughter and unpasteurized milk and cider; one to eight days

• Listeria: Hot dogs, luncheon meats, unpasteurized milk and cheese, unwashed raw produce; nine to 48 hours

• Noroviruses: Raw produce, contaminated shellfish, infected food handler; 12 to 48 hours

• Rotavirus: Raw produce, infected food handler; one to three days

• Salmonella: Raw or contaminated meat, poultry, milk, or egg yolks; one to three days

• Staphylococcus: Meat, prepared salads, cream sauces, cream-based pastries; one to six hours

Contamination can happen at any point in the food-production cycle, from on the farm to in your kitchen. The cause is often cross-contamination, or the transfer of harmful organisms from one surface to another, the Centre for Disease Control in the United States reports. There is also particular risk for foods that are raw and ready to eat, because they aren't cooked or heated before they’re eaten.

The most common symptoms of food poisoning, according to the Mayo Clinic, are nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Whatever symptoms you have, they can easily show up within hours of eating contaminated food, but also not show up until days or even weeks later. This wide range can sometimes make it hard to know what led to your illness, or to track down the cause of wider outbreaks of foodborne illness.

Before you call the professionals, here are nine things you should know about food poisoning, including how to prevent it and who's most likely at risk.

  • Take It Easy
    Relax! If you’re suffering from food poisoning, you might be pretty miserable while it works its way through your body. The Mayo Clinic suggests drinking plenty of fluids — as much as you can handle in order to avoid dehydration. If you have trouble keeping liquid down, try consuming it in tiny quantities at a time or sucking on ice chips.
    For food, stick to bland foods for easier digestion. If you are breastfeeding or using formula, continue to feed your child as you normally would.
    For young children, older adults, and those with weakened immune systems, oral rehydration fluids like Pedialyte may be helpful. Always talk to your doctor first.
  • When To Call The Professionals
    Sometimes food poisoning can require medical attention. You should see a doctor if any of these symptoms are present: frequent vomiting with inability to keep liquids down; bloody vomit or stools; diarrhea lasting more than three days; extreme pain or severe abdominal cramping; an oral temperature higher than 38.6C/101.5F; signs of dehydration; neurological symptoms like blurry vision, muscle weakness, or tingling in the arms.
  • Prevent Dehydration
    Dehydration is the most common serious complication of food poisoning, and is particularly likely if you are have frequent vomiting or diarrhea. According to the Mayo Clinic, the symptoms of dehydration include excessive thirst, dry mouth, little to no urination, severe weakness, dizziness, and lightheadedness.
    Dehydration is particularly serious for older adults, infants, and people with suppressed immune systems or chronic illnesses.
  • When You Need Treatment
    Though most foodborne illnesses resolve themselves without treatment within 48 hours, there are some times when treatment is warranted. If you become dehydrated, you may need to be hospitalized and replenished with lost fluids with a solution given through IV. Some bacterial food poisoning, for example, can be treated with antibiotics. In particular, listeria is treated with IV antibiotics given in hospitals.
  • Who's At Risk?
    Some people are at a higher risk of more serious illness from contaminated food. Our immune systems weaken as we age, which means that older adults can experience more serious consequences from foodborne illness. This is also true for infants and young children because their immune systems are not fully developed. People who have compromised immune systems due to conditions like HIV/AIDS or treatments like chemotherapy are also at risk.
  • Listeria
    Listeria and E. coli are two foodborne contaminants that can be particularly serious. Listeria can be dangerous for a fetus, which makes it a particular concern for pregnant women. Listeria, for example, can infect a mother's placenta, the amniotic fluid, and the baby, notes Baby Center.
  • E. Coli
    As well, there are some strains of E. coli that can cause hemolytic uremic syndrome, a kidney condition that can lead to kidney failure. The risk of this condition is the highest for children younger than five, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems.
  • How To Prevent It
    There are steps you can take at home to prevent getting food poisoning in the first place. Wash your hands, utensils, and cooking surfaces often, with hot, soapy water, before and after handling food, the U.S. National Library of Medicine advises. Keep raw foods like poultry away from ready-to-eat foods like produce, and keep this in mind while shopping for, storing, and preparing food.
  • Practice Safe Cooking
    Make sure your foods are cooked to a safe temperature: 71.1C for ground beef, 62.8C for steaks and roasts, 73.9C for poultry. The best way to make sure you’ve done this is with a food thermometer.
    Put perishable food in the freezer or fridge within two hours or purchasing or preparing them, or within one hour if the room temperature is 32.2C or higher. Defrost food in the fridge, not on the counter.