Food Poisoning: Causes, Symptoms & When to See Your Doctor

You might think food poisoning is a simple and insignificant medical problem, but did you know that approximately 3,000 Americans die from complications related to food poisoning every year? 48 million, or 1 in 6, Americans get sick of some form of food poisoning. Food poisoning is also known as foodborne illness. Unfortunately, food poisoning happens still too often, and while it’s easily preventable. A few simple prevention tips are washing raw produce well in clean water, avoiding cross-contamination, and refrigerating or freezing leftovers within 2 hours of cooking to keep bacteria from breeding. Knowing how to recognize this illness and when to contact a professional healthcare provider is super important, as complications can be life-threatening.

Causes of Food Poisoning

Foodborne illness happens when you swallow contaminated food or drinks. This means that the product you consumed is infected with the toxic organism(s), like bacteria, fungi, parasites, and/or viruses. In some cases, the byproduct of these organisms makes you sick. When you consume these toxic organisms, your body will react by getting rid of these toxins as quickly as possible.

Contamination can occur throughout the entire production process; during the product’s growing, harvesting, and preparation. This can occur, for example, through cross-contamination, or in other words, the transfer of, in this case, harmful organisms from one surface to another. For example, cutting raw vegetables on a cutting board after cutting raw meats or fish – without washing your kitchen accessories.

Who Is at Risk for Food Poisoning?

Foodborne illness doesn’t have to be dangerous, but some high-risk groups can have serious complications. Groups that should take extra care with what they consume to avoid food poisoning include:

  • Senior citizens; the immune system doesn’t respond as fast as in younger people
  • Pregnant women; changes in the metabolism & circulation can increase your chances of getting sick.
  • Infants & young children; immune systems aren’t completely developed yet
  • People with weakened immune systems; like people with diabetes, AIDS, or people undergoing chemotherapy, or radiation therapy.

As mentioned on the previous page, 3,000 people die each year from complications of often preventable illnesses. Although complications are not common, they can be life-threatening. The most common complication is severe dehydration, but some forms of food poisoning can also cause miscarriages and stillbirths, kidney damage, arthritis, and nerve and brain damage. Recognizing when you’re suffering from food poisoning instead of stomach flu, and when you should contact your professional healthcare provider can be life-saving in some cases!

Infographic of food poisoning prevention, symptoms & treatment options

Symptoms of Food Poisoning

Contamination – and the start of experiencing symptoms – happens within (a few) hours, like Listeria bacteria, while others may take a few days, like E. coli bacteria, or sometimes weeks, like Hepatitis A, to make you sick. Warning signs of food poisoning can vary by infection, but the following symptoms are the most common:

  • Nausea & vomiting
  • Watery or even bloody diarrhea
  • Stomach/abdominal pain
  • Stomach/abdominal cramps
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weakness
  • Headache

Often your body is back to normal after a few hours to a few days. You will still feel weak, but adequate nutrition and hydration will soon make you feel better.

When to See Your Doctor

Usually, food poisoning isn’t bad enough to contact and visit a professional healthcare provider. Staying home and drinking enough fluids to stay hydrated is often the medical advice. In some cases though, you should contact your healthcare provider. Your healthcare provider will do a physical exam and ask you about your symptoms and what you’ve had to eat and drink lately. In some cases, they will also test your stool and/or blood – to test for certain parasites or bacteria. For some types of foodborne illnesses, you will need to take antibiotics.

At-risk groups or people with the following symptoms should contact their healthcare professional immediately:

  • Frequent vomiting and not being able to keep fluids down
  • Bloody vomit or stools
  • Diarrhea for over 3 days
  • Extreme (abdominal) pain
  • Extreme stomach/abdominal cramping
  • Fever higher than 102 F, measured in the mouth
  • Signs of (severe) dehydration

For more information about food poisoning, and helpful prevention tips for yourself and your loved ones, continue your online search here:

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