When Food Makes us Ill

Foodborne illness or food poisoning is a malady that most of us are familiar with. Despite being a common illness, it is preventable if we take precautions related to the food we eat. A variety of organisms are responsible and the symptoms vary slightly depending on the organism causing the disease.

  • Staphylococcus aureus    

Common food sources are ham, poultry, potato or egg salad, mayonnaise, cream. pastries. Commonly seen when food is left to cool slowly and then remains at room temperature after cooking. Classical examples of staphylococcal food poisoning are outbreaks following picnics where potato salad, mayonnaise, cream pastries have been served.

  • Bacillus cereus

Fried rice is the most common source especially when cooked rice are not refrigerated. Meats, vegetables, dried beans and cereals are also implicated.

Abdominal pain and fatigue can accompany vomiting and diarrhea in food poisoning.
  • Clostridium perfringens and Clostridium botulinum(Botulism)   

Beef, poultry, legumes and gravies are some sources which can harbour C.perfringens. Improperly canned or fermented foods can cause botulism.

  • Vibrio 

Vibrio cholera is the bacteria responsible for Cholera and usually spreads through shellfish and contaminated water. ‘Rice water stools’ are associated with Cholera.

  • E. coli

Several types of this bacteria can cause food poisoning; some cause watery diarrhea while others lead to a bloody diarrhea. Some foods harbouring this bacteria are salads, cheese, meats, contaminated water, salami, beef and raw vegetables.

  • Salmonella Typhi is famous for causing typhoid and can spread by beef, poultry, eggs, dairy products.

  • Giardia

Classic example is hikers and campers who drink from freshwater streams.

  • Listeria 

Common food sources are soft cheeses, deli meats, raw sprouts and raw milk. It especially causes serious illness in pregnant women.

  • Traveler’s diarrhea is related to ingestion of contaminated food and water and a myriad of organisms can be responsible from bacteria like E. coli, Shigella to viruses such as Norovirus or Rotavirus. Sometimes, parasites like Entamoeba, Giardia can be the causative agent.
People at high risk of contracting foodborne diseases include:
  • Children < 5 years
  • Individuals with age > 65 years
  • Pregnant women
  • People with weak immune system like those suffering from cancers, HIV, immune system disorders, diabetes, liver disease.
If you have eaten food infected with an organism which has the potential to cause food poisoning, you may have some of the following symptoms:
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Pain in belly
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Bloating (especially if Giardia is responsible for the disease)
  • Fever
  • Tenesmus (feeling the need to pass stool when you just had a bowel movement)
  • Muscle aches and weakness

It may take a few hours to a few days for these symptoms to develop depending on the causative organism.

It is important to consult your doctor if you feel your condition is worsening. Also, if you have any of the symptoms given below, it is highly important to seek the advice of your doctor:
  • Blood or mucus in stool
  • Black, tarry stools or brown coloured vomitus
  • Fever > 102°F
  • Increase in frequency of stools or vomiting
  • Increase in abdominal pain 
  • Yellowish discolouration of your eyes or body.
  • Diarrhea > 3 days
  • If you belong to high risk population (given above)
  • Diarrhea in a newborn or infant
  • Decreased feeding in children
Some of the red flag signs which should alarm you to immediately consult a doctor are:
  • Dry mouth and throat
  • Decreased thirst
  • Decreased urination
  • Dizziness
  • Sunken eyes
  • Skin tenting
  • Lethargy 
  • Altered level of consciousness
  • Weak pulse
  • Low blood pressure
  • Weak cry of a newborn or infant
After an acute episode of food poisoning, you can have complications post-resolution of the acute attack. Some complications are listed below:
  • Chronic diarrhea 
  • Malabsorption
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Joint pains (particularly after infection with Shigella, Salmonella)
  • Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome is a serious condition which affects the kidneys and also causes low platelet count and anaemia. It can happen after infection with a particular strain of E. coli or Shigella.
Some measures that you can take at home that will aid your recovery are:
  • Maintain adequate hydration.

Drink plenty of oral fluids like water or oral rehydrating solution(ORS). In case, ORS packets are not available, homemade solutions consisting of either half a small spoon of salt and six level small spoons of sugar dissolved in one litre of safe water, or lightly salted rice water or even plain water may be given.

  • Avoid drinking fruit juices or sweetened drinks. They can exacerbate your diarrhea and dehydrate your body further.
  • Avoid taking any medication without consulting your doctor. Avoid anti-diarrheal medications like loperamide, diphenoxylate and atropine.

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