One Out of Four Americans Get Food Poisoning Each Year

Food-borne pathogens are seen only under a microscopeFood poisoning can occur from either a virus, a bacteria, or a parasite. By far the most common cause of food poisoning are the Noroviruses, which are widespread in the community but also are well known for sickening cruise-ship passengers, according to the CDC. A virus does not respond to antibiotics, whereas bacteria are treatable with antibiotics.

The symptoms of norovirus illness usually include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and some stomach cramping. Sometimes people additionally have a low-grade fever, chills, headache, muscle aches, and a general sense of tiredness. Symptoms of norovirus illness usually begin about 24 to 48 hours after ingestion of the virus, but they can appear as early as 12 hours after exposure. The illness is usually brief, with symptoms lasting only about 1 or 2 days.  Most people get better within 1 or 2 days, and they have no long-term health effects related to their illness. However, sometimes people can become dehydrated and may need special medical attention.

The next most common type of food poisoning come from two types of bacteria, campylobacter and salmonella. Both of these bacteria are diagnosed by a simple stool culture which must be ordered by a health care provider.

Salmonella has been in the news quite a bit lately. Earlier in 2008, salmonella poisoning was linked to hot peppers and tomatoes from Mexico that sickened more 1,400, and the recent peanut-related salmonella outbreak has triggered one of the largest food recalls ever in the United States. It has been linked to nine deaths and caused 654 confirmed illnesses in 44 states so far. The salmonella-peanut butter outbreak is continuing, though the numbers of new cases have declined modestly since December.  This outbreak was traced to Peanut Corp. of America, which is now undergoing bankruptcy proceedings.  To date, more than 2,100 products in 17 categories have been voluntarily recalled by more than 200 companies, and the list continues to grow. 

Salmonella is a bacteria that invades a person’s gastrointestinal system (stomach and intestines). It can be in drinking water or food, but it also can occur from coming in contact with infected animals or contaminated surfaces.    Most people with a Salmonella infection develop a diarrhea illness within 6 to 72 hours from the ingestion of the bacteria. Diarrhea, abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, and fever occur in varying degrees of severity, depending on a number of factors. The illness usually lasts 4 to 7 days, although mild cases may only last 1-2 days. In some cases, the diarrhea may be so severe that the patient needs to be hospitalized, however most persons recover without treatment.

Some cases of salmonella may cause severe illness, hospitalization and even death in susceptible people such as children under 5, the elderly, and people who have lowered natural resistance to disease. In some cases, arthritic symptoms may follow 3-4 weeks after the onset of the gastrointestinal symptoms. 

Campylobacter is also a bacteria that can be a food-borne illness, but it can also be spread to humans from infected animals.  Most people who become ill with campylobacter get diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain, and fever within two to five days after exposure to the organism. The symptoms can be severe and the diarrhea may be bloody and sometimes accompanied by nausea and vomiting. The illness typically lasts one week. The severity varies from person to person. Some people who are infected do not have any symptoms at all, while those with compromised immune systems may have an infection so severe that it spreads to the bloodstream and causes a serious life-threatening infection.

There are a number of very important precautions you can take to prevent food poisoning.

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Source: CDC, February 2009 

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