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Foodborne illness, also commonly called “food poisoning”, is an illness that results from eating foods or drinking liquids that are contaminated with certain types of bacteria, viruses, parasites, or toxins. While most foodborne illnesses resolve on their own and require no medical attention, some can require medications, hospitalization, or may even be life threatening and should be evaluated by a medical professional.
The most common symptoms of foodborne illness are nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea and fevers. Some symptoms start within hours and others do not start until days to weeks after eating or drinking the offending item. More serious symptoms such as bloody bowel movements or bloody vomiting, chest pain, irregular heartbeat, headaches, confusion, changes in vision, weakness, muscle paralysis, or hallucinations can be a sign of a severe infection that should be evaluated immediately by a medical professional. Medical attention should be sought if your temperature is greater than 100.4°F (38°C) or if symptoms lead to an inability to eat, drink, or stay hydrated.
The majority of symptoms of foodborne illness go away in a few days. However symptoms can last for weeks to months, years or even for life. Certain types of infections can cause new long-term disease or can worsen pre-existing illnesses. Some people may experience ongoing abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation, bloating, or cramping. Other long-term symptoms can involve skin, nerves and muscles, the heart, or joints. Any symptoms that last for more than 48 hours should be evaluated by a physician.
Although food allergies as well as toxic chemicals can cause symptoms similar to those described above, the focus of this paper will be on illness caused by bacteria, viruses and parasites.Bacteria
Everyone is at risk for and will probably have a foodborne illness at one time in their lives. However, these illnesses typically only require medical attention when the symptoms described above become severe. There are certain populations that are at increased risk for severe illness with foodborne infections for whom medical attention should be sought if any concern exists. These include the very young, very old, pregnant women, immunosuppressed patients such as organ transplant recipients, or patients with cancer, diabetes, or HIV, and those who are on chronic immunosuppressive medications such as chemotherapy or steroids. Patients that suffer from chronic liver disease, alcoholism, or have decreased stomach acid production through surgery or chronic acid suppressing medications (such as proton pump inhibitors, for example esomeprazole, rabeprazole, or omeprazole) are also at increased risk.
Foodborne illness is usually diagnosed based on your symptoms and the circumstances surrounding the start of your illness. Often the cause of the illness is not determined, particularly if symptoms are short lived. Common questions your medical provider may ask you that can help in determining the cause of your illness may include:
Beyond the history of illness, your provider may order blood or urine tests, imaging (X-rays or CT scan), or even an endoscopy. If you are having diarrhea a very important part of the diagnosis includes evaluating a sample of your bowel movement for the type of infection causing your symptoms. Collecting your stool is important not only for determining treatment but also allows public health officials to recognize if there is an outbreak of foodborne illness that needs to be further investigated.
Perhaps the most important part of avoiding foodborne illness is ensuring food safety:
More recommended food safety information can be found online at www.foodsafety.gov.
High risk individuals (very young, very old, pregnant women, immunosuppressed patients such as organ transplant recipients, or patients with cancer, diabetes, or HIV, and those who are on chronic immunosuppressive medications such as chemotherapy or steroids) should avoid the following foods:
The treatment of foodborne illness is primarily supportive. Supportive treatment includes drinking adequate fluids/ensuring proper hydration, eating small, low fat meals, and resting as needed. Because these illnesses can be passed from person to person, ensuring proper hygiene (hand washing, care with diaper changing) as well as staying home from work or school are important in preventing the spread of these infections.
Antibiotics are not usually necessary, although they may be required in certain types of bacterial or parasitic infections. Anti-diarrheal medications such as loperamide are not generally recommended and should typically be avoided unless recommended by a physician.
As mentioned above, more serious symptoms such as bloody bowel movements or bloody vomit, chest pain, irregular heartbeat, headaches, confusion, changes in vision, weakness, muscle paralysis, or hallucinations can be a sign of a severe infection that should be evaluated immediately by a medical professional. Furthermore, medical attention should be sought if your temperature is greater than 100.4°F (38°C) or if symptoms lead to an inability to eat, drink, or stay hydrated.