Food poisoning is an acute syndrome with nausea, abdominal cramping, vomiting and/or diarrhea which appear suddenly and within 48 hours after ingestion of food contaminated with pathogenic bacteria, viruses or toxins produced by bacteria. Depending on the contaminant, other symptoms such as chills and fever, bloody stools, dehydration, and nervous system damage may follow and can lead to death
At least one out of five Americans suffer food poisoning each year, and over 9,000 deaths are reported as a result. Food poisoning stems not from food additives, chemical fertilizers, or pesticides applied to food by growers or processors, but from poor food storage or handling practices in home or restaurant kitchens that cause food to become contaminated.
The Centers for Disease Control estimates that unknown agents cause 81 percent of all food-borne illnesses and hospitalizations. There are more than 200 known diseases that can be transmitted through food, however, and the known causes of food poisoning include infective agents and toxic agents.
Infective agents include viruses, bacteria, and parasites. Toxic agents include poisonous mushrooms, improperly prepared exotic foods (such as barracuda), or pesticides on fruits and vegetables.
Food usually becomes contaminated with these agents from poor sanitation or preparation. Food handlers who do not wash their hands after using the bathroom or have infections themselves often cause contamination. Improperly packaged food stored at the wrong temperature also promotes contamination.
Three of the most important causes of food poisoning are the salmonella, clostridium botulinum and staphylococcal organisms.
The most common symptoms of food poisoning include diarrhea, watery stools, abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, and fever. Most food poisoning symptoms are mild, however, and can safely be treated at home.
Salmonella. Food poisoning caused by Salmonella bacteria gives victims flu-like symptoms for as long as a week.
Botulism. The first symptoms appear abruptly, usually 18 to 48 hours after the food was eaten. These symptoms include nausea, dry mouth, vomiting, abdominal pain and blurring of vision. The toxin has a paralyzing effect on the nervous system; it prevents the nerves from conducting messages from the brain. Control of the muscles is lost, beginning with those around the face and neck. Loss of the ability to swallow makes it impossible to eat. It leads to choking and may introduce foreign materials into the lungs. The victim usually dies within several days.
If medical aid is quickly obtained and the correct diagnosis rapidly made, death can be avoided. A serum may be injected which is sometimes able to neutralize a portion of the toxin and limit further paralysis. This serum cannot help the nerves that are already damaged. The speed with which symptoms appear depends largely on the amount of toxin-containing food that is eaten.
Staphylococcal food poisoning. This type of food poisoning is associated with abdominal cramps, fever, vomiting and diarrhea. It appears about 6 hours after eating food contaminated with an enterotoxin formed by the staph bacteria. Dairy products, pastries and fish are common foods harboring this organism.
The most common treatment for simple food poisoning is simply supportive care at home with clear liquids to stay hydrated, and after vomiting or diarrhea subside, the gradual return to eating beginning with a bland diet (such as rice, bread, potatoes and milk).
The doctor should be consultedalled if the person has nausea, vomiting or diarrhea that lasts more than 2 days, a fever, dizziness or unconsciousness, or if the symptoms are occurring after recent travel to foreign countries, or if people who ate the same thing are also ill. A visit to the hospital should be made if the person experiences vomiting blood, a swollen abdomen, problems breathing, swollen joints, yellow eyes or skin, or sharp abdominal pain that lasts more than 15 minutes.