What is food poisoning?

By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD

Food poisoning is a term given to infections with bacteria, parasites, viruses, or toxins from germs that affects humans via contaminated food or water.

The commonest causative organisms are Staphylococcus or E. coli.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 76 million people become ill from food related diseases each year resulting in 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths.

Diarrhea due to food poisoning kills millions worldwide, especially in developing and under developed nations.

Travellers to developing countries often encounter food poisoning in the form of Traveller’s diarrhea. (1, 2, 3)

Who does food poisoning affect?

Food poisoning may affect a single individual or a group of people who have taken the same tainted food.

It is common in a community, especially at large social functions, restaurants, school cafeterias etc.

Food poisoning is suspected if a minimum of two people are affected and contaminated food or water is identified as the source of the infection. (1, 4)

What foods frequently cause food poisoning?

Common foods that may carry the germs include spoilt meat or poultry, contaminated water, foods that contain mayonnaise, raw or undercooked meat, eggs, fish and oysters and so forth.

Faulty food handling during preparation may also be responsible for food poisoning. For example, inadequate hand washing, not washing cooking utensils, inadequate refrigeration of dairy and other products. (1)

Which germs cause food poisoning?

Germs that cause food poisoning may include Campylobacter enteritis, Cholera, E. coli enteritis, Staphylococcus aureus, Shigella, Listeria etc.

Who is most vulnerable to food poisoning?

Infants and the elderly are particularly vulnerable to food poisoning.

Those with suppressed immunity, those with kidney disease or diabetes or those travelling abroad where they are exposed to the germs are also susceptible.

Pregnant and lactating women need to be especially careful about avoiding food poisoning. (1, 2, 3)

Chemical toxins in food

Sometimes food poisoning involves chemical toxins which are produced in certain foods that are improperly stored or under cooked.

Scombroid poisoning occurs due to a large release of histamine chemical from the fish when it is eaten.

This may lead to severe allergic reaction with swelling of the face, itching, shortness of breath and difficulty swallowing. This may lead to death due to choking. (2)

Common symptoms of food poisoning

Food poisoning commonly manifests as pain in the abdomen with cramps, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, weakness, fever with chills and tremors, headache etc.

Problems begin within 2 - 6 hours of eating the tainted food or water. This may be longer or shorter depending on the cause of the food poisoning. (1, 2, 5)

Treatment of food poisoning

Treatment involves keeping the patient hydrated with plenty of fluids and water. In most cases the condition resolves by itself.

Some patients may however need antibiotics for therapy.

Prevention of food poisoning is the key and can be achieved by maintaining clean hands, cooking surfaces, washing and cooking foods thoroughly. Drinking only filtered water also helps. (1-7)

Edited by April Cashin-Garbutt, BA Hons (Cantab)

Further Reading

Food poisoning Causes
Food poisoning Symptoms
Food poisoning Diagnosis
Food poisoning Treatments

Sources:

  1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0002618/
  2. http://www.medicinenet.com/food_poisoning/article.htm
  3. http://www.emedicinehealth.com/food_poisoning/article_em.htm
  4. http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/175569-overview
  5. http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/Food-poisoning/Pages/Introduction.aspx
  6. http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/food-poisoning/food-poisoning-and-safe-food-handling-topic-overview
  7. http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/food-poisoning-000064.htm

Last Updated: Jun 14, 2012

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