Foodborne Illness 101

While the U.S. food industry is regulated under strict safety standards, an estimated 48 million cases of foodborne illnesses still occur each year. Many of these cases are caused by food you consume in your own home. Staying informed on foodborne illnesses and knowing what to do if you get sick can prevent further complications as well as contain any potential outbreaks.

A foodborne illness is caused by food that has been contaminated by pathogens (bacteria, viruses), natural toxins (often found in some fish, vegetables and mushrooms), pesticides, metals, chemicals or other contaminants. These contaminants can enter your food at any point as it goes from the farm to your plate. The most common symptoms for a foodborne illness are vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, abdominal pain, fever and chills. These symptoms may cause dehydration and other complications.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified more than 250 foodborne illnesses and their causes, but the most common causes are known as The Big 6:

  • Norovirus: This is considered the leading cause of foodborne illness in this country because of how easily it’s transmitted. Norovirus spreads by either direct contact with an infected person or through infected food, water, soil and surfaces. The most common carrier of norovirus in foods are raw foods and ready-to-eat foods that have been handled by infected food handlers.
  • Shiga toxin-producing e. coli: This can transfer from person to person and can be spread by raw food or items handled by infected food handlers. Symptoms can range from mild nausea and abdominal pains to severe symptoms that require hospitalization.
  • Non-typhoidal salmonella: This is one of the most common causes in the U.S. of foodborne illnesses. You get sick with salmonella by eating food that touched water, soil or other surfaces that were contaminated by animals’ feces. 
  • Salmonella typhi: While non-typhoidal salmonella can come from animals or humans, salmonella typhi can only come from a human. It is not as common in the United States, but it does have more severe symptoms such as high fever and severe gastrointestinal complications.
  • Shigella spp.: The shigella spp. virus most often infects people who inhabit overcrowded, unhygienic places including prisons, day care centers and camps. It is highly infectious and can cause severe gastrointestinal complications.
  • Hepatitis A virus: Hepatitis A most often infects people through food and water that has been contaminated by feces. Symptoms are the same as other common foodborne illnesses as well as jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin).

If you have a foodborne illness, get plenty of rest and drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration. Mild symptoms should go away within 48 hours, but talk to your doctor if symptoms persist. Avoid anti-diarrheal medications unless they are suggested or prescribed. If you experience severe symptoms such as severe abdominal pain or bloody diarrhea, seek emergency medical help.

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