Food poisoning, also called food-borne illness, is a common, distressing, and sometimes life-threatening problem. People infected with food-borne organisms may have no symptoms or may have symptoms ranging from mild intestinal discomfort to severe dehydration and bloody diarrhea. Food poisoning kills 125,000 children each year.
What Are the Symptoms of Food Poisoning?
Generally, food poisoning causes some combination of nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea that may or may not be bloody, sometimes with other symptoms.
- After eating tainted food, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting, can start as early as one hour in the case of staph and as late as 10 days in the case of campylobacter. It may take even longer to develop symptoms from parasite infections such as Giardia. Symptoms can last from one day up to a couple of months or longer, depending on the type of infection.
- Vomiting, diarrhea, sweating, dizziness, tearing in the eyes, excessive salivation, mental confusion, and stomach pain may be symptoms of chemical or toxin food poisoning such as that from poisonous mushrooms.
- Partial loss of speech or blurred vision, muscle weakness, difficulty swallowing, dry mouth, muscle paralysis from the head down through the body, and vomiting may indicate botulism, a severe but very rare type of bacterial food poisoning.
General Guidelines to Prevent Food Poisoning
- Make sure that food from animal sources (meat, dairy, eggs) is cooked thoroughly or pasteurized. Use a thermometer to check the temperature of the food.
- Avoid eating raw or spoiled meats and eggs. Check expiration dates on meats and eggs before purchasing and again before preparing.
- Carefully select and prepare fish and shellfish to ensure quality and freshness.
- If you are served an undercooked meat or egg product in a restaurant, send it back for further cooking. You should also ask for a new plate.
- Be careful that you don’t let juices or drippings from raw meat, poultry, shellfish, or eggs contaminate other foods.
- Do not leave eggs, meats, poultry, seafood, or milk for extended periods of time at room temperature. Promptly refrigerate leftovers and food prepared in advance.
- Wash your hands, cutting boards, and knives with antibacterial soap and warm to hot water after handling raw meat, poultry, seafood, or eggs. Wooden cutting boards are not recommended, because they can be harder to clean.
- Avoid unpasteurized milk or foods made from unpasteurized milk.
- Do not thaw foods at room temperature. Thaw foods in the refrigerator and use them promptly. Do not refreeze foods once they have been completely thawed.
- Keep the refrigerator at 40 degrees Farenheit or lower, and the freezer at 0 degrees Farenheit or lower.
- Wash raw vegetables and fruits thoroughly before eating, especially those that will not be cooked. Avoid eating alfalfa sprouts until their safety can be assured. Methods to decontaminate alfalfa seeds and sprouts are being investigated.
- Drink only pasteurized juice or cider. Commercial juice with an extended shelf life that is sold at room temperature (juice in cardboard boxes, vacuum sealed juice in glass containers) has been pasteurized, although this is generally not indicated on the label. Juice concentrates are also heated sufficiently to kill bacteria.
- Be aware of proper home-canning procedures. Instructions on safe home-canning can be obtained from county extension services or from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
- If you are ill with diarrhea or vomiting, do not prepare food for others, especially infants, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems, because they are more vulnerable to infection.
- Wash hands with soap after handling reptiles, turtles, birds, or after contact with human or pet feces.
- Breastfeed your baby if possible. Mother’s milk is the safest food for young infants. Breastfeeding may prevent many food-borne illnesses and other health problems.
- Those at high risk, such as pregnant women, people with weakened immune systems, infants, and the elderly should also:
- Avoid soft cheeses such as feta, Brie, Camembert, blue-veined, and Mexican-style cheese. (Hard cheeses, processed cheeses, cream cheese, and cottage cheese are safe.)
- Cook foods until they are steaming hot, especially leftover foods or ready-to-eat foods, such as hot dogs.
- Although the risk of food-borne disease associated with foods from deli counters is relatively low, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems may choose to avoid these foods or thoroughly reheat cold cuts before eating.
Dehydration is the most frequent complication of food poisoning. Older persons and children should take special precautions to prevent it.
To prevent dehydration, take frequent sips of a rehydration drink (such as Pedialyte). Try to drink a cup of water or rehydration drink for each large, loose stool you have. Sports drinks, soda pop, and fruit juices contain too much sugar and not enough of the important electrolytes that are lost during diarrhea, so they shouldn’t be used to rehydrate.
You can make your own rehydration drink.
Dehydration in children
Take extra precautions to prevent dehydration in children.
For children who are breast-feeding or bottle-feeding, continue the regular breast milk or formula feeding as much as possible. You may have to feed more often to replace lost fluids. Give an oral rehydration solution (ORS), such as Pedialyte, between feedings only if you see signs of dehydration.
For older children, give ½ cup [4 fl oz (118 mL)] to 1 cup [8 fl oz (237 mL)] of water, milk, or a rehydration drink each hour, and try to keep feeding your child his or her usual diet. Foods to try include potatoes, chicken breast without the skin, cereal, yogurt, and fresh fruits and vegetables. Try to avoid foods that have a lot of fat or sugar. Supplement feedings with small sips or spoonfuls of a rehydration drink or clear liquid every few minutes.