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Foodborne Illness (Food Poisoning)
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Foodborne disease can be caused by a variety of toxins in the environment, including pesticides, medications in food and naturally toxic foods such as poisonous mushrooms. More than 250 different foodborne diseases have been identified to date—not inclusive of chemical agents. Most of these diseases are infections caused by a variety of bacteria, viruses, and parasites. And, new bacteria are still being discovered.
Food Poisoning & Foodborne Illness
Foods often become contaminated with bacteria and viruses due to careless sanitation practices, which can usually be avoided with simple preventive measures such as food handlers washing their hands before, during and after food preparation. Improperly packaged food stored at the wrong temperature and dirty machinery at food production facilities also promote contamination.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that each year over 76 million—or one out of every four Americans—are sickened as a result of consuming contaminated foods or beverages. Some become seriously ill; more than 325,000 require hospitalization and over 5,000 die each year. Older adults, young children, and those who have weakened immune systems are particularly vulnerable. Otherwise healthy individuals are also at risk if the contamination is severe or especially pathogenic. In a nutshell, anyone who eats contaminated food is at risk of serious illness and even death in a severe case of food poisoning.
Foods that are contaminated with poisonous chemicals or harmful substances can also cause serious illness. Symptoms of foodborne illness vary by disease but with bacterial or viral infections the most common are nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea - usually of unusual severity. Food poisoning with a toxic chemical will usually show severe symptoms very quickly, as will food allergies. Immediate medical attention is called for in each of these cases.
In some cases, such as the cantaloupe listeriosis outbreak, it can take weeks and even months for symptoms of illness to arise. Some common causes of food poisoning include salmonella, e coli and listeriosis. The incubation time for each of those pathogens varies from as little as a few hours to three months.
Types of Food Poisoning
SalmonellosisSalmonellosis is caused by the bacteria Salmonella and reportedly affects approximately 40,000 Americans every year, although the actual number may be 30 times higher because many cases of salmonellosis are mild. Patients experience diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramping 12 to 72 hours after infection, with illness lasting four to seven days. Most people recover without treatment, although in some people the infection can spread into the bloodstream, causing life-threatening harm. Children under the age of five are at highest risk, with the elderly and people with impaired immune systems also at an increased risk.
E. ColiE. coli refers to Escherichia coli, a large group of bacteria. Some E. coli strains cause illness, including diarrhea, urinary tract infections and respiratory illness. Symptoms of E. coli contamination include severe stomach cramps, diarrhea and vomiting. Anyone can be infected but young children and the elderly are more likely to suffer serious side effects.
ListeriosisListeriosis is caused by eating food contaminated with the Listeria monocytogenes bacterium. Patients often experience fever, muscle aches, diarrhea and other gastrointestinal symptoms. In most patients, the bacterium spreads outside the gastrointestinal tract. Infants, pregnant women, the elderly and patients with weakened immune systems are at highest risk for severe illness. Listeriosis can be fatal.
BotulismBotulism is caused by a bacterium called Clostridium botulinum. It often occurs when a person eats contaminated food, with symptoms arising anywhere from six hours to 10 days of ingestion. Symptoms include double vision, blurred vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech, dry mouth and muscle weakness. Botulism can be fatal if the breathing muscles become paralyzed.
I had some of the symptoms described. Did I have a foodborne illness? Quite possibly. If your symptoms occur suddenly you might have a foodborne illness. Scientists estimate that as much as 35% of all diarrhea experienced is caused by a foodborne pathogen. Diarrhea that is caused by food poisoning usually lasts one week or less. Not all foodborne pathogens incubate as quickly as others, so if symptoms appear days later, it does not rule out food poisoning. Different microbes have different incubation periods. The incubation period refers to the time between ingestion and onset of symptoms.
Incubation Periods of the Most Common Foodborne Pathogens. After contaminated food is eaten, there is a delay before the consumer starts to feel the first food poisoning symptoms. This delay is called the "incubation period". Incubation periods of foodborne illnesses can range from a few hours to several days or weeks.
People tend to believe that the last food they ate was the food that made them ill. This is not always the case (and is almost always incorrect). As seen below, it usually takes at least 12 hours for common foodborne pathogens to have a symptomatic affect on the consumer.
Health investigators routinely use known incubation periods to work backwards to determine the likely source of a person's illness. The reported incubation periods vary to some degree, but below is a compilation of recent values from the CDC, FDA, and state and local health departments:
How can I find out if I am sick because of something I ate or drank? Severe symptoms usually result in a trip to the emergency room or to a physician. Foodborne infections are usually diagnosed by laboratory tests that identify the organism. Bacteria such as E. coli O157:H7, Salmonella, Shigella, and Campylobacter are found by microbiologic testing of the ill person's stool, blood or urine.
Many foodborne infections are not detected through routine laboratory procedures and health care providers must order appropriate testing before the cause can be identified. If you go to a hospital or see a physician and you suspect food poisoning, ask the doctor to test specifically for the more common pathogens.
Should I see a doctor if I think I have a foodborne illness? A person with symptoms of a foodborne illness should seek prompt medical attention, especially if there is blood in the stools, if they are experiencing prolonged vomiting or show signs of dehydration, if diarrhea lasts 3 days or more or they notice unusual changes in the stool including increased mucus or an unusual dark color (especially if it is black, which is highly indicative of bleeding in the intestinal tract).
Anyone at risk for serious consequences—the very young, the very old, or those with immune impairment—should consult a health care provider if symptoms do not improve after 24 hours. In addition, those with severe symptoms regardless of their age or health should immediately go to the nearest emergency room or call 911. This can be especially critical if there are any signs of difficulty breathing, thready pulse, severe sweating, fever or swelling, dizziness or fainting. It is also important to eliminate any cardiovascular issues or the possibility of allergy with resulting anaphylactic shock - both of which are also life threatening.
What else should I do? If you suspect you have a foodborne illness contact your local health department or if symptoms are severe, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. They will ask you questions about your symptoms, when they started, and what you have eaten for several days prior to symptom onset, and where you ate. Because some of the organisms that cause illness can be spread by ways other than food, they will ask you about other potential sources such as contact with others with similar symptoms or exposure to animals. This distinction is important so that public health authorities can take appropriate steps to stop others from becoming ill. They will close restaurants, food processing plants and other food sources in order to contain an outbreak if necessary.
If you know others who have similar symptoms, urge them to contact the health department, and to fill out the form below. Oftentimes, information compiled from a group of individuals provides clues to the source of illness that can be missed when only one person reports to the health department.
If you suspect that your illness is food related, keep any left over food for possible testing if you took some home. If laboratory tests show the food was contaminated, you will have powerful evidence that the food is the likely cause of your illness. The health department will advise you about any laboratory tests that should be conducted and how long food should be kept. Similarly, keep retail or restaurant receipts showing that you purchased the suspected food. Receipts often contain valuable pieces of information about a food product that the consumer does not know or cannot recall.
As you attempt to determine if you have a foodborne illness and what the potential source could be, avoid these common misperceptions.
Common Food Poisoning Myths
The last thing I ate is what made me sick.
Not necessarily. Referring to the table that shows how long it takes for certain microbes to grow inside your body and cause illness, you see this is not always the case. Write down what you ate, where you ate, and when you ate in as much detail as possible. Health department investigators will ask you for this information and accurate recall is critical.
If other people ate what I ate and did not become ill, that particular meal could not be the source of my illness.
Not necessarily. It is well documented that the microbes that cause foodborne illness are not always uniformly distributed in a food item. Also, people have different immune systems. One person may consume hamburger prepared from a package of ground beef and become seriously ill with E. coli O157:H7 or Salmonella while his dining companion consumes ground beef from the same package and remains healthy. Different people react differently to different pathogens and toxins.
By law, a doctor is required to report to the local health department a positive test result for any reportable disease (e.g.,salmonella, e coli, or shigella). The local health department monitors these reports. Most of the time, the health department will then perform a kind of "DNA fingerprinting" on the laboratory sample to determine the exact genetic serotype of the bacteria by a process call pulse-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE).
The health department then sends the PFGE results to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), who monitors all reportable food borne illnesses in the United States. The CDC will immediately declare an outbreak and alert state and local officials if two or more persons produce the same PFGE results--indicating that those persons became ill from a common food source.
Once an outbreak has been identified, public health officials then conduct intensive investigations. This includes visiting the suspected manufacturing plant, taking numerous samples from different areas of the plant, and searching through corporate documents and testing results. The investigators will also attempt to interview all of the persons with the identical PFGE results, to determine what common food source was consumed. The infected persons are asked to identify everything they ate within the week prior to the onset of illness.
Sometimes, as an investigation narrows, an infected person may be interviewed 2 or 3 times. Once the common food source is identified, the food manufacturer is notified, food production is halted, and the tainted food is recalled.
The CDC, in conjunction with the local and state health departments, will then provide a definition of a "confirmed case." A confirmed case is normally defined as a laboratory-confirmed infection with a PFGE result matching the outbreak and an illness onset within
Foodborne Illness Legal HelpIf you or a loved one think that you might have a foodborne illness claim, please click on the link below and complete the form. A qualified food poisoning attorney will contact you to discuss your options, free of charge.
Last updated on Aug-3-13
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