Every year about 48 million people in the United States suffer from a foodborne illness. Most of the illnesses happen suddenly and last a short time. While most people recover on their own without treatment, foodborne illness still causes about 3,000 deaths in the US annually. ¹ This article covers everything you need to know about the illnesses that can occur.

When food or beverages contain harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemicals, it often leads to an infection of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Common symptoms of resulting foodborne illnesses are vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, fever and chills. The way foodborne illnesses or food poisoning is treated depends on what caused the disease.

 

Bacteria is the number one reason

Bacteria is the number one reason

In many cases, bacteria is the cause of food poisoning. Bacteria can contaminate the food at any time during the production or preparation stages. In some cases bacteria may already be present when food is being purchased. Unpasteurized milk, dairy products and raw foods including fish, meat and poultry can be particularly prone to causing food poisoning. A lack of hygiene often leads to food contamination at home or in restaurants. Therefore washing hands, kitchen surfaces and utensils such as cutting boards remains important to prevent cross-contamination. Cross-contamination describes the spread of bacteria from contaminated food to uncontaminated food and is one of the top triggers for food contamination at home. Another common trigger is incorrect storage and preparation methods. Bacteria may multiply if hot food is not kept hot enough or cold food is not kept cold enough. It is said that bacteria multiplies quickly when the temperature of food is between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit (5 and 60 degrees Celsius). To stop or to slow down the spread of bacteria it is necessary to keep cold food below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Cooking can kill bacteria.

Viruses are tiny infectious microorganisms which can only multiply inside living cells of other organisms. Like bacteria they can cause foodborne illnesses and other infections. Generally people pass viruses to each other by not washing hands thoroughly after using the bathroom. Food can be contaminated when it is being prepared by a person that is infected with a virus. Norovirus is known as a common foodborne virus. Parasites and chemicals are two other triggers of foodborne illnesses. Parasites are tiny organisms that live inside another organisms. Some parasites are spread through water contaminated with the stools of people or animals who are infected. Parasitic infections are relatively rare in developed countries, though. Chemicals can be pesticides in unwashed fruits and vegetables, toxins in fish or shellfish or wild mushrooms that are toxic.

 

Don’t get dehydrated

Don’t get dehydrated

Anyone who consumes contaminated food can get a foodborne illness. However, infants and children, pregnant women, older adults and people with weak immune systems are more likely to develop foodborne illnesses than others. Foodborne illnesses may lead to dehydration and other complications. In the worst case, long lasting health problems can result from food poisoning. Usually most people recover on their own but treatment is needed when there are signs of dehydration, prolonged vomiting that prevents keeping liquids down, high fever, severe pain in the abdomen or diarrhea for more than two days. Replacing lost fluids and electrolytes to prevent dehydration is the only treatment needed for most foodborne illnesses. In some specific cases additional medication is needed.

 
Preventing foodborne illnesses is easy

Basically, foodborne illnesses can be prevented very easily. Here are some tips you should keep in mind in your everyday life:

  • Wash your hands at least 20 seconds with warm, soapy water before preparing food
  • Clean kitchen utensils and surfaces with hot, soapy water before preparing food
  • Always wash fruits and vegetables before consuming
  • Keep hot food hot and cold foods cold
  • Make sure that you cook foods long enough in order to kill harmful bacteria that cause illnesses. A meat thermometer can be used to check if foods are cooked to the appropriate internal temperature
  • Think about your storage methods and make sure that raw meat, fish and poultry are kept away from other foods

References: ¹ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention https://www.cdc.gov/foodborneburden/2011-foodborne-estimates.html 

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/foodborne-illnesses