It’s one of the most unpleasant feelings you can imagine – getting a stomach bug.
Yet gastroenteritis is quite common and, more importantly, highly preventable. At a time of year when families and friends are gathering for potlucks and summer barbecues, thinking about food-borne illness is not a bad idea.
Each year in the United States, 48 million people get sick from food-borne diseases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While most of these are minor illnesses, 128,000 people are hospitalized, usually because of dehydration. Though not common, food-borne diseases kill 3,000 people per year.
Food-borne diseases often cause outbreaks when multiple people are exposed to contaminated foods. In the 10-year period from 1998 to 2008, the CDC investigated more than 13,000 food-related outbreaks.
The most common symptom of food-borne illness is diarrhea, of which there are two varieties. The first, usually resulting from a virus, is frequent, watery diarrhea. The second and more serious type of diarrheal illness is frequent small stools, which may be accompanied by pain and bleeding. This latter type is more commonly bacterial in origin and is more serious.
Other symptoms of food-borne gastrointestinal illness may include nausea and vomiting. When nausea and vomiting occur alone, and suddenly after consumption of contaminated food, it is usually because of a preformed toxin produced in the food by bacteria.
The most common cause of food-borne illness is a virus known as norovirus. This virus produces a self-limited illness consisting of nausea, vomiting, watery diarrhea and abdominal cramping. Symptoms resolve without treatment in three to five days, if not sooner.
The most common bacterial causes include salmonella, campylobacter and shigella. While these may cause painful and even bloody diarrhea, they do not always require antibiotics in otherwise healthy people. More rare is a strain of E. coli known as H7:0157, which produces bloody diarrhea and can also cause more serious illness.
The types of foods associated with food-borne illness are varied. According to the CDC, in order of frequency they include produce, meat and poultry, dairy and eggs, and seafood.
So how do you reduce your risk of food-borne illness?
First, the CDC investigates large outbreaks and issues alerts when contaminated food enters the food supply. Recalled foods should be discarded.
Secondly, consuming foods outside your home may pose risk. Exercising good judgment about the safety of food preparation and storage is important. You may not want to eat that chicken salad that has been sitting out, unchilled, for several hours at the deck party.
Finally, when preparing food at home, it is recommended that you follow four simple steps, clean, separate, cook and chill. Wash your hands and surfaces often. Don’t cross contaminate foods such as meat and produce. Ensure food preparation to the correct temperature of internal heat. When a meal is done, promptly refrigerate perishable foods within two hours.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Ute Mountain Ute Health Center in Towaoc.