What is food poisoning?

When one eats food containing agents not intended for consumption, the result is often food poisoning. It ranges from mild, self-limited illness to severe, life-threatening illness, depending on the cause. One can get food poisoning from eating food that is poisonous if not prepared properly, food prepared by someone with a highly contagious virus, or food contaminated with numerous types of bacteria. Some people can even get food poisoning from eating foods that contain a lot of pesticides or parasites. In many cases, food poisoning can be prevented through proper handwashing and safe food preparation.

Some items can cause accidental and quite serious food poisoning. A risky food is wild mushrooms, particularly when harvested by non-experts. Certain mushrooms such as the death cap can be accidentally eaten and can cause near-fatal results. Ingesting it can cause liver failure, and many people who accidentally eat one end up needing a liver transplant. Another such food is puffer fish, which if improperly prepared contains a highly toxic poison that can cause death.

Certain viruses can cause food poisoning if the cook does not wash their hands carefully, especially after going to the bathroom. Norovirus is common and has been the cause of many cases of mass food poisoning on cruise ships. Rotavirus and hepatitis A can also be contracted this way. In most cases, the person preparing the food introduces their own fecal matter into the food by not washing their hands properly. Most of these illnesses cause a few days or weeks of upset stomach, nausea, diarrhea, and fever. However, young children can become significantly ill with hepatitis A and rotavirus and may require hospitalization and intravenous fluids.

The bacteria that cause food poisoning are quite common. In many cases, these bacteria make a person sick for 24-48 hours with nausea and vomiting. Salmonella and Campylobacter are common bacteria responsible for food poisoning. Salmonella tends to be the result of improperly stored foods or in undercooked foods such as eggs and poultry. Raw chicken or raw milk can also cause Campylobacter. Although most get over food poisoning from these bacteria within a few days, young children and people with compromised immune systems can have much more severe reactions a few weeks after ingesting the bacteria.

Staphylococcus aureus can grow in foods that are not properly refrigerated. Shigella can result from water that is exposed to human waste, resulting in traveler's diarrhea. Vibrio Cholerae can result from eating undercooked shellfish, and it tends to affect children more. Botulism, listeria, and E. coli are among the most serious types of bacteria-borne food poisoning. Listeria is often found in fruits and vegetables and delicatessen items, and botulism spores can especially affect very young children and the immunocompromised, and can be found in foods such as honey.

E. coli food poisoning is often contracted by eating a hamburger that is still pink or raw. Since much of today's ground beef contains E. Coli, the safest way to prepare it is to make sure the burger is no longer pink and the juices run clear. Eating raw meat should be avoided. This should effectively help eliminate the hamburger as a source of food poisoning. Clearly, it's not important to place the raw burger on plates that will be reused before washing.

If you suspect food poisoning and you haven't recovered within 12-24 hours, you can see your doctor. First you can get dehydrated from all that vomiting and diarrhea. Second, it's hard to know exactly what bacteria or other agent poisoned you. Especially children and people with compromised immune systems should see a doctor if they suspect food poisoning.

Also, minimize food poisoning risks by avoiding foods that are known to be poisonous, washing your hands and kitchen surfaces thoroughly while preparing food, keeping food properly refrigerated, and cooking food properly. Drink bottled water when traveling or hiking. If you are sick and work in the food industry, it is best to avoid working when you have a stomach virus.

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