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When what you eat makes you sick: Coping with foodborne illness

Getting sick is a drag, but there’s nothing quite as miserable as a case of foodborne illness and its gut-wrenching symptoms. 

Around 48 million (or 1 in 6) people experience some type of foodborne illness in the U.S. each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While most cases aren’t serious, about 128,000 people are hospitalized and 3,000 die from related complications.


What is a foodborne illness?

Foodborne illness, also known as food poisoning, happens when you consume contaminated food, beverages or water. When something bad goes in, your body goes into action to get it out. Unfortunately, that can mean a lot of vomiting, diarrhea and fever.  

Bacteria and viruses are the most common causes of foodborne illnesses. Contamination may also be caused by parasites, funguses, toxins and chemicals.

Food can become contaminated when it is not:

  • Washed well.
  • Fresh.
  • Cooked to a safe internal temperature.
  • Handled in a safe and sanitary way.
  • Held at proper temperatures.
  • Refrigerated or frozen promptly.


What are the signs of foodborne illness?

The signs of foodborne illness can vary depending on the source of contamination. Symptoms can range from mild to serious and may last for a few hours or several days.

The most common signs of foodborne illness are:

  • Diarrhea.
  • Nausea.
  • Vomiting.
  • Stomach pain with cramping.
  • Low-grade fever.
  • Headache.
  • Weakness.

More severe symptoms may include:

  • Bloody diarrhea.
  • High fever.
  • Prolonged vomiting that prevents you from keeping liquids down.
  • Signs of dehydration, including dry mouth and throat, dizziness and lack of urination.


What are the most common causes of foodborne illnesses?

There are more than 250 types of foodborne illness, which is why it isn’t always easy to pinpoint what’s making you sick.

Some of the most common causes of foodborne illness include:

  1. Norovirus. This highly contagious virus (often called stomach flu) is the leading cause of foodborne illness in the U.S. and causes up to 21 million illness every year. Winter is prime time for the dreaded bug, and CDC data indicates cases are currently on the rise in the U.S.
    • Common culprits: Undercooked shellfish, leafy greens, fresh fruits; contaminated water; and consuming food prepared by someone who is sick. You can also get sick by touching contaminated surfaces and having direct contact with someone who is infected.
    • Onset of symptoms: 12-48 hours.
    • Duration: 12-60 hours.
  2. Salmonella. Considered the most common bacterial cause of foodborne illness, salmonella is responsible for the highest number of hospitalizations and deaths from food poisoning.
    • Common culprits: Raw eggs, poultry, meat, unpasteurized milk or juice, cheese, contaminated raw fruits and vegetables.
    • Onset of symptoms: 6-48 hours.
    • Duration: 4-7 days.
  3. Clostridium perfringens. This bacterial foodborne illness tends to happen in settings where food is prepared in bulk, such as nursing homes, school cafeterias and large catered events. Common symptoms are diarrhea and stomach cramps without fever or vomiting.
    • Common culprits: Unrefrigerated or improperly refrigerated meats, potato and egg salads, cream pastries.
    • Onset of symptoms: 12-72 hours.
    • Duration: Varies (symptoms may last for up to 2 weeks).
  4. Campylobacter. This little known bacterial illness is the second-leading cause of foodborne illness in the U.S. In rare cases, campylobacter can lead to Guillain-Barre syndrome, a serious illness that affects the nerves.
    • Common culprits: Unpasteurized milk, chicken, shellfish, turkey and contaminated water.
    • Onset of symptoms: 2-5 days. 
    • Duration: 2-10 days.

While far less common, some foodborne illnesses can cause severe illness, including:

  • Listeria. The bacteria that cause this infection can be found in soil, water, animal poop and other substances. Illness is commonly caused by eating improperly processed deli meats, soft cheeses, unpasteurized milk and raw vegetables that have been contaminated from the soil or from contaminated manure used as fertilizer. Listeria can be especially serious for pregnant women and can lead to premature delivery or stillbirth.
  • E. coli. Water or food contaminated with human poop are common causes of this bacterial infection. You can get E. coli from consuming contaminated foods or water, drinking unpasteurized beverages, touching poop or contaminated surfaces, and by not properly wiping after going to the bathroom. Many strains cause mild infections, but some can cause serious illness, including kidney damage.


Who’s most at risk for severe foodborne illness? 

Anyone can get foodborne illness, but some people are more likely to have a severe reaction. People most at risk include:

  • Age. Children under the age of 5 are at higher risk because of their immature immune systems. Immune systems begin to decline after the age of 65. 
  • Chronic illnesses. People with weakened immune systems due to chronic illnesses.
  • Medications. Certain medications, including corticosteroids and immunosuppressants, can repress your immune system and make you more prone to illness.
  • Pregnancy. The immune system weakens during pregnancy, making pregnant women more susceptible to foodborne illness. For example, pregnant women are 10 times more likely to get a listeria infection.


How can I prevent foodborne illnesses?

Fortunately, foodborne illnesses are preventable. A few food safety measures can go a long way to keep you and your family safe. 

When you prepare food, always:

  • Wash your hands with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds before and after handling raw meat, poultry, shellfish, fish, eggs or produce.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables well before eating.
  • Use plastic cutting boards when you cut raw fish, poultry or meat. They are easier to keep clean.
  • Wash all utensils and surfaces with warm soapy water before and after they are used to prepare food. Use one quart of water mixed with one teaspoon of bleach to sanitize surfaces and utensils.
  • Cook poultry, beef and eggs for the right amount of time before eating. Use a meat thermometer to ensure foods are cooked to an appropriate internal temperature.
  • Separate raw meat, poultry, seafood and their juices from other foods.

When you store food, be sure to:

  • Immediately refrigerate or freeze raw and cooked perishable foods. Food left out at room temperature for more than 2 hours should be tossed.
  • Set your refrigerator at 40°F or below and freezers at 0°F.
  • Keep fruits and vegetables, cooked foods and prepared foods separated from raw meat and raw eggs.
  • Refrigerate mayonnaise and salad dressings and any foods that contain them.
  • Throw out any food if you don’t know how long it has been left out of the fridge or you’re not sure if it’s bad.

In general, always wash your hands after you:

  • Go to the bathroom.
  • Change diapers.
  • Smoke.
  • Cough, sneeze or blow your nose.
  • Handle pets.
  • Have contact with someone who is sick.

For more food safety basics, including guidelines for cooking and storing food, visit the United State Department of Agriculture (USDA) website.

Eating out? More than 60 percent of foodborne illness outbreaks were attributed to either some type of restaurant, caterer, or banquet facility, according to CDC data. There are ways to reduce your risk. Take note of an establishment’s food safety rating, make sure food is cooked thoroughly and avoid lukewarm fare. Promptly refrigerate leftovers and eat them within 3-4 days. 


What can I do to treat foodborne illnesses?

In most cases, symptoms of foodborne illness can be managed at home and will improve on their own within a few days. Depending on how you feel, you should be able to return to work or school once you are symptom-free for at least 48 hours. 

Here are some simple ways to ease your symptoms and get your body back on track:

  • Stay hydrated. Replacing fluids lost through diarrhea, vomiting and fever is the most important thing you can do to help your body recover. Severe dehydration may require hospitalization and IV treatment. Water, sports drinks, diluted juice or broth are great options. Hydration formulas, such as Pedialyte and Enfalyte, help fluids stay in the body longer.
  • Try over-the-counter medications. Pepto Bismol may help relieve some of your unpleasant symptoms. However, most health care clinicians don’t recommend anti-diarrheal remedies, such as Imodium, which can slow the process of expelling toxins from your body and may prolong your recovery. 
  • Rest. Take time to let your body heal. You probably won’t have much choice, depending on the severity of your illness.
  • Eat foods that are easy on the stomach. Start with small bites of bland foods like pasta, potatoes, rice and soda crackers. Avoid dairy products, spicy or fatty foods, caffeinated beverages and alcohol. 


Can urgent care treat foodborne illness?

If you’re not feeling better after a few days, it’s a good idea to seek treatment. For mild symptoms caused by foodborne illness, including nausea, diarrhea and abdominal pain, Indigo Urgent Care is a great option. One of our health care clinicians can evaluate your symptoms and determine the best treatment. If the cause of your foodborne illness is bacterial, we may prescribe antibiotics to relieve your symptoms.

Best of all, you don’t need to wait for relief. Simply walk into one of our convenient neighborhood locations or book an appointment online. And if you prefer to stay close to the couch – and the bathroom – Indigo Virtual Care is an awesome way to go. Book a same-day or next-day appointment to meet face-to-face with a clinician from your favorite device.

You should visit nearest ER if you experience any signs of severe illness or dehydration, including:

  • High fever (temperature over 102 degrees).
  • Bloody diarrhea.
  • Severe stomach pain.
  • Vomiting so much you can’t keep food or liquids down.
  • Dark-colored pee or less pee (urine) than usual.
  • Dry mouth or throat.
  • Feeling dizzy when you stand.

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