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Food poisoning is an illness caused by eating foods that have harmful organisms in them. These harmful germs can include bacteria, parasites, and viruses. They are mostly found in raw meat, chicken, fish, and eggs, but they can spread to any type of food. They can also grow on food that is left out on counters or outdoors or is stored too long before you eat it. Sometimes food poisoning happens when people do not wash their hands before they touch food.
Most of the time, food poisoning is mild and goes away after a few days. All you can do is wait for your body to get rid of the germ that is causing the illness. But some types of food poisoning may be more serious, and you may need to see a doctor.
What are the symptoms?
The first symptom of food poisoning is usually diarrhea. You may also feel sick to your stomach, vomit, or have stomach cramps. How you feel when you have food poisoning mostly depends on how healthy you are and what germ is making you sick.
If you vomit or have diarrhea a lot, you can get dehydrated. Dehydration means that your body has lost too much fluid. Watch for signs of dehydration, which include having a dry mouth, feeling lightheaded, and passing only a little dark urine. Children and the elderly can get dehydrated very quickly and should be watched closely. Pregnant women should always call a doctor if they think they may have food poisoning.
How do harmful germs get into food?
Germs can get into food when:
- Meat is processed. It is normal to find bacteria in the intestines of healthy animals that we use for food. Sometimes the bacteria get mixed up with the parts of those animals that we eat.
- The food is watered or washed. If the water used to irrigate or wash fresh fruits and vegetables has germs from animal manure or human sewage in it, those germs can get on the fruits and vegetables.
- The food is prepared. When someone who has germs on his or her hands touches the food, or if the food touches other food that has germs on it, the germs can spread. For example, if you use the same cutting board for chopping vegetables and preparing raw meat, germs from the raw meat can get on the vegetables.
How will you know if you have food poisoning?
Because most food poisoning is mild and goes away after a few days, most people do not go to the doctor. You can usually assume that you have food poisoning if other people who ate the same food also got sick.
If you think you have food poisoning, call your local health department to report it. This could help keep others from getting sick.
Call your doctor if you think you may have a serious illness. If your diarrhea or vomiting is very bad or if you do not start to get better after a few days, you may need to see your doctor.
If you do go to the doctor, he or she will ask you about your symptoms (diarrhea, feeling sick to your stomach, or throwing up), ask about your health in general, and do a physical exam. Your doctor will ask about where you have been eating and whether anyone who ate the same foods is also sick. Sometimes the doctor will take stool or blood samples and have them tested.
How is it treated?
In most cases, food poisoning goes away on its own in 2 to 3 days. All you need to do is rest and get plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration. Drink a cup of water or rehydration drink (such as Lytren, Pedialyte, or Rehydralyte) each time you have a large, loose stool. You can also use a sports drink, such as Gatorade. Soda and fruit juices have too much sugar and should not be used to rehydrate. Doctors recommend trying to eat normally as soon as possible. When you can eat without vomiting, try to eat the kind of foods you usually do. But try to stay away from foods that are high in fat or sugar.
Antibiotics are usually not used to treat food poisoning. Medicines that stop diarrhea (antidiarrheals) can be helpful, but they should not be given to infants or young children.
If you think you are severely dehydrated, you may need to go to the hospital. And in some severe cases, such as for botulism or E. coli infection, you may need medical care right away.
How can you prevent food poisoning?
You can prevent most cases of food poisoning with these simple steps:
- Clean. Wash your hands often and always before you touch food. Keep your knives, cutting boards, and counters clean. You can wash them with hot, soapy water, or put items in the dishwasher and use a disinfectant on your counter. Wash fresh fruits and vegetables.
- Separate. Keep germs from raw meat from getting on fruits, vegetables, and other foods. Put cooked meat on a clean platter, not back on the one that held the raw meat.
- Cook. Make sure that meat, chicken, fish, and eggs are fully cooked.
- Chill. Refrigerate leftovers right away. Don’t leave cut fruits and vegetables at room temperature for a long time.
- When in doubt, throw it out. If you are not sure if a food is safe, don’t eat it.