by Dr. Lenny Powell
The evening of July 31, 2011 was lovely – my wife and I went to an Italian restaurant for dinner. She ordered pasta with marinara sauce, and I had the fettuccini Alfredo. We were sitting outside and the temperature was a balmy 95 degrees. We took our time eating our meals, picking at them while we gabbed and laughed about our day.
Then, it hit me – a grumbling and gurgling in my stomach about an hour after I finished my meal. “Hmm, that’s odd.” I thought. My stomach didn’t really hurt but it felt kind of annoying. I excused myself to the bathroom and came back a few minutes later, feeling somewhat better. Then it happened again- not cramps, but stomach pangs. I thought to myself, “this isn’t going to be a fun night.” By the time I got home I realized that I had food poisoning!
Foodborne illnesses strike about 1 in 6 Americans (48 million) every year; 128,000 people are hospitalized, and 3,000 people die from complications. Food poisoning can be caused by bacteria, viruses, toxins, or chemicals. Foods most commonly associated with foodborne illnesses include raw foods such as meat, poultry, milk, shellfish, eggs, and raw fruits and vegetables (1).
Food poisoning is caused by eating foods that are contaminated with bacteria or other pathogens. The good news is that most of these infections are largely preventable, and there are simple steps that can be taken to minimize exposure to these pathogens.
Safe food preparation is a key to avoiding foodborne illness. According to the CDC (1), it’s important to “Cook, Separate, Chill, and Clean” foods to prevent food poisoning:
• Cook meat, eggs, and poultry thoroughly. Use a food thermometer to make sure you meat is cooked properly and use this chart as a guide: http://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/charts/mintemp.html. Make sure your eggs are cooked until the yolk is firm.
• Separate foods so that they do not cross-contaminate one another. Keep produce separate from meat, poultry, seafood and eggs. Use separate cutting boards and plates and keep these foods separate in the refrigerator as well.
• Chill promptly fruits, vegetables, milk, eggs, and meats. Bacteria can start to grow as quickly as after one hour unless foods are refrigerated. A cooler in the car with ice may be a temporary fix but the best thing to do is to get your food home, especially on a hot day, and into the refrigerator. It is also important to thaw or marinate foods in the refrigerator and never on the counter or in the sink.
• Clean your hands, your surfaces, your utensils, and your fruits and vegetables. Clean your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and warm water, your utensils and small cutting boards with soap and hot water, and surfaces as well as larger cutting boards with a bleach/water mixture. Wash fruits and vegetables before peeling to prevent bacteria from creeping inside and causing contamination.
Those who are most at risk from foodborne illnesses include pregnant women, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems. Additionally, bottle-fed infants should be provided with clean and disinfected bottles with each feeding.
Symptoms of food poisoning include abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, and fever. You should see your doctor if these symptoms progress to any of the following (1):
• Diarrhea, particularly if you notice blood, that lasts longer than 3 days
• Persistent abdominal cramping or pain
• Nausea and vomiting that is prolonged and such that you cannot keep liquids down
• Fever (greater than 100.4 ºF, measured orally)
• Decreased urination
Symptoms can range depending on the cause of the food poisoning. The goal of treatment is to replace fluids and, if warranted, provide antibiotic therapy. Not all foodborne illnesses require antibiotic therapy, as many diarrheal illnesses are viral in nature and will not be affected by antibiotic therapy. In some cases antibiotics may be more harmful than helpful.
“Don’t eat the Alfredo, sweetheart,” my mother warned me sternly at an outdoor wedding we attended shortly after this episode, “you don’t want to go through all that again!” I nodded in agreement, realizing that food safety and handling is of paramount importance and that with appropriate measures, illness can effectively be prevented.
Dr. Lenny Powell is a third-year Family Medicine resident at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine. He presently has the pleasure of rotating with Dr. Jennifer Caudle (@drjencaudle) on a Medicine in Media rotation exploring the media communicates health information to the public. Follow Dr. Powell on Twitter @drlennypowell.
Reference 1: www.cdc.gov
Information in this article is for informational and educational purposes only and is not intended to provide medical consultation or serve as a substitute for medical advice provided by a physician or qualified medical professional.