See if this rings a bell -- you finish a nice lunch or dinner, and only a few hours later begin to feel sick to your stomach. That initial nausea is only the beginning of your digestive problems -- before you know it, you're virtually incapacitated by a barrage of symptoms, from abdominal cramping to vomiting. Yes, you've been struck by nasty case of food poisoning.
Far from being a rare and exotic illness, food poisoning strikes millions of unsuspecting diners each year; the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that roughly 50 million Americans contract food poisoning annually. Since food poisoning is a widespread problem, it makes perfect sense to guard your stomach against this unpleasant and taxing disease.
What is Food Poisoning?
The term "food poisoning" is a bit of a catch-all term, used to describe illnesses caused by the ingestion of food contaminated with harmful toxins. A full-blown case of food poisoning is not a pretty sight, as sufferers can expect to suffer from the following set of symptoms:
-- Abdominal Pain
The problem with food poisoning is compounded by the convoluted nature of the condition, as the disease can afflict the body in several different forms. Food poisoning can be caused by both viruses and bacteria; some of the most notorious perpetrators in each category are detailed below:
Noroviruses -- Doesn't this sound like some sort of computer software program that guards against computer viruses? Unfortunately, the truth is far less appealing, as noroviruses represent the leading culprit behind food poisoning cases in the U.S. Noroviruses refer to a group of similar viruses that tend to cause relatively mild food poisoning symptoms.
This set of viruses tend to find their way into the human body through contaminated water, shellfish, and vegetables, and can also spread through person to person contact. Often times, noroviruses are spread when infected feces wind up in the afore-mentioned routes of infection. A patient can expect to see relief in 2 to 3 days.
Rotavirus -- You can think of rotavirus as a more potent version of the run-of-the-mill norovirus. A person afflicted with rotavirus will typically exhibit moderate to severe symptoms of the disease. Often times, a patient will first experience vomiting, followed by watery diarrhea and fever. As with noroviruses, rotavirus is spread through fecal contamination. Infants and children are the groups most vulnerable to rotavirus infection.
Hepatitis A -- Now we're getting to the real heavy hitters. A good number of people cringe at the thought of Hepatitis, and for good reason; Hepatitis A launches a full scale attack on the liver, leading to an avalanche of distressing symptoms. A patient with Hepatitis A can expected to be plagued by a rapid development of fever, loss of appetite, abdominal pains and lethargy. The disease usually takes about two months to clear the body, though some patients might have symptoms for six months, and may also suffer relapses. This form of Hepatitis is spread through fecal contamination of food products.
Salmonellae -- Better known as Salmonella or Salmonella infection, this type of bacteria can flourish in undercooked eggs, dairy, poultry, seafood and other items. Salmonella poisoning has been known to cause nausea, vomiting, headaches, joint pain and diarrhea accompanied by cramps.
Escherichia coli (E coli) -- Like Salmonella, E coli has garnered its fair share of publicity in recent years. In 2011, a particularly strong outbreak killed 31 and sickened thousands in Germany. An E coli infection usually causes repeated bouts of diarrhea, which can morph into bloody diarrhea as the disease progresses. E coli bacteria are usually spread through raw/undercooked hamburger, unpasteurized milk and juices and polluted well water.
Shigella -- Also referred to by the much less formal moniker of "traveler's diarrhea," shigella bacteria is spread when human waste products enter the local water supply. As with many other offenders on this list, shigella leads to multiple episodes of diarrhea, with blood or mucus frequently finding its way into the foul mix.
Staphylococcus Aureus -- These Latin names sure are a mouthful, aren't they? Unlike other strains of bacteria which can lead to food poisoning, staphylococcus aureus festers in cakes, pies, various types of salad and dairy products. Staphylococcus aureus also boasts a somewhat unique way of dealing damage; this type of bacteria infects patients by producing toxins in contaminated foods, leading to the quick appearance of nausea, dizziness, abdominal cramping and intense vomiting.
Keeping your food safe
As made plainly clear by the above list, there are plenty of microscopic critters out there that are more than capable of derailing your digestive system. So many, in fact, that we lack the room to actually list them all. Though it might seem impossible to mount an effective defense against so many enemies, you can greatly reduce your risk of food poisoning by following a handful of common-sense safety guidelines.
Cook meat thoroughly -- Some types of most serious forms of food poisoning are caused by bacteria in undercooked meat (Salmonella comes to mind as a prime example). Simply cooking chicken, ground beef and other meats at the right temperature for the appropriate amount of time should eliminate these tiny, invisible threats.
Keep track of perishable goods -- Many people inadvertently contaminate their own foods by exposing them to room-temperature environments for prolonged periods of time. Make sure to put perishable items like milk, seafood, poultry and eggs back into the refrigerator when you are done with them.
Practice sensible hygiene -- When reviewing the lineup of organisms responsible for food poisoning, you doubtlessly noticed that many of them were spread through indirect contact with human waste. There's a lesson to take away from this theme -- never prepare foods for others while suffering from repeated rounds of vomiting and diarrhea. This is especially true for food preparation involving the elderly, infants and those with weak immune systems.
Be careful what you touch -- Harmful viruses and bacteria can hitch a ride on a wide range of animals, such as reptiles, turtles and birds. It goes without saying that they can also congregate on the fecal matter of animals and humans alike. Should you have direct contact with one of these creatures, or be unfortunate enough to come into contact with their waste products, you are best advised to thoroughly wash your hands as soon as possible.
Thaw foods properly -- People who lack food preparation experience might mistakenly believe it's safe to thaw out frozen food at room temperature. In reality, this can give bacteria and viruses a chance to gain a foothold on your food. It's much safer just to thaw out foods in your refrigerator. Refreezing foods after they have been thawed is also a no-no.
Michael Harris is a contributor to Natural Knowledge 24/7, a monthly newsletter focusing on health and wellness issues. This article, along with many others covering a wide range of subjects, can be found at http://naturalknowledge247.com/.© 2013 Michael V Harris
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