FACTS ABOUT FOOD POISONING

  • Food poisoning is a common infectious condition that affects millions of people in the United States each year.
  • Most commonly, people complain of
    • vomiting,
    • diarrhea, and
    • cramping abdominal pain.
  • People should seek medical care if they have an associated fever, blood in their stool (rectal bleeding), signs and symptoms of dehydration, or if their symptoms do not resolve after a couple of days.
  • Treatment for food poisoning focuses on keeping the affected person well hydrated.
  • Most cases of food poisoning resolve on their own.
  • Prevention is key and depends upon keeping food preparation areas clean, proper hand washing, and cooking foods thoroughly.

What is food poisoning?

Food poisoning is a food borne disease. Ingestion of food that contains a toxin, chemical or infectious agent (like a bacterium, virus, parasite, or prion) may cause adverse symptoms in the body. Those symptoms may be related only to the gastrointestinal tract causing vomiting or diarrhea or they may involve other organs such as the kidney, brain, or muscle.

Typically most foodborne diseases cause vomiting and diarrhea that tend to be short lived and resolve on their own, but dehydration and electrolyte abnormalities may develop. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates approximately 48 million people become ill from food-related diseases each year resulting in 128,000 hospitalizations, and 3,000 deaths.

According to the CDC, in 2018, the most common forborne illnesses in the United States each year are caused by: 

  1. Norovirus.
  2. Campylobacter.
  3. Clostridium perfringens.
  4. Staphylococcus aureus.
  5. Salmonella.

How do you know if you have food poisoning or the stomach flu?

Food poisoning

Food poisoning and the stomach flu may or may not be the same thing, depending if the causative agent is transmitted by contaminated food, or if the agent is transmitted by non-food mechanisms such as body secretions. Most health-care professionals equate stomach flu to viral gastroenteritis.

Stomach flu

Stomach flu is a non-specific term that describes an illness that usually resolves within 24 hours and is caused commonly by the adenovirus, Norwalk virus or rotavirus, (rotavirus is most commonly found in children).

Norovirus

If numerous cases of viral gastroenteritis occur in a situation where many people have been eating, it certainly may be considered food poisoning. Norwalk virus is responsible for many cases of food borne illness outbreaks on cruise ships.

What are the signs and symptoms of food poisoning?

Food poisoning most commonly causes:

This can cause significant amounts of fluid loss and diarrhea along with nausea and vomiting may make it difficult to replace lost fluid, leading to dehydration. In developing countries where infectious epidemics cause diarrheal illnesses, thousands of people die because of dehydration.

As noted in the section above, other organ systems may be infected and affected by food poisoning. Symptoms will depend upon what organ system is involved (for example, encephalopathy due to brain infection).

What are the symptoms and incubation time for large and small intestinal food poisoning?

Large intestine and small intestine have an intermediate incubation from about 1 to 3 days.

Large intestine

Infections of the large intestine or colon can cause bloody, mucousy diarrhea associated with crampy abdominal pain.

  • Campylobacter, according to CDC data, is the number one cause of food-borne disease in the United States.
  • Shigella spp contaminate food and water and cause dysentery (severe diarrhea often containing mucus and blood).
  • Salmonella infections often occur because of poorly or undercooked cooked and/or poor handling of the chicken and eggs. In individuals with weakened immune systems, including the elderly, the infection can enter the bloodstream and cause potentially life-threatening infections.
  • Vibrio parahaemolyticus can contaminate saltwater shellfish and cause a watery diarrhea.

Small intestine infection

Diarrhea due to small bowel infection tends not to be bloody, but infections may affect both the small and large intestine at the same time.

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