Food poisonings are the common illnesses which occur when contaminated foods are consumed. Usually, food poisonings are not serious and most of the people recover within a few days even without undergoing any treatment. However, if the condition does not improve even after several days then medical help is necessary.
Symptoms of food poisonings become evident within one or two days of consuming the contaminated food. However, sometimes the symptoms may appear within few hours or as long as after several weeks of eating such foods. The main symptoms may include:
- Nausea (feeling sick)
- Vomiting (being sick)
- Diarrhea (sometimes including blood and mucus)
- Stomach pain and cramps
- Weakness and lack of energy
- Decrease or a loss of appetite
- Fever and chills
- Muscle pain
Consult the doctor if the above symptoms are severe or if they do not improve in a few days. Children, pregnant women and elderly patients aged above 60 years also need medical help in case of food poisonings.
Most of the cases of food poisonings are due to the contamination of the food by the toxins released by certain bacteria, viruses and even parasites or by the organisms themselves. Contamination of food can happen at any stage such as during production, handling, processing or while cooking. Some of the common reasons for food contamination may include:
- Improper or unhygienic cooking (especially that of meat)
- Leaving the cooked food in warm temperatures for long time
- Improper storage of food (especially which needs to be chilled)
- Inadequate reheating of the cooked food
- Contamination due to touching of food by an ill person or touching with dirty hands
- Eating expired food
- Cross contamination of the foods (this happens when contamination spread from other food item, surfaces, hands and equipment)
Foods which are more susceptible to contamination include:
- Unpasteurized milk
- Raw meat, shellfish and poultry
- Ready-to-eat foods such as cheese, sliced meats, etc.
The risk of having food poisoning depends on the following factors:
- Frequency and amount of exposure to the poisoned food
- The causative organism
- Age of the person (children and older adults are at higher risk)
- Overall health of the person
Diagnosis of food poisoning is often based on the history of the patient, symptoms and the foods consumed recently. A physical examination may be performed to look for the signs of dehydration. The doctor will also monitor the vital signs such as blood pressure, body temperature and heart rate. Additionally, blood tests and stool culture are necessary to check for the presence of bacteria, viruses or parasites.
Usually, most of the food poisoning cases resolve without any treatment but sometimes the condition can be long lasting and needs treatment. Treatment depends on the source of food poisoning and the severity of the symptoms. Treatment options may include:
- Fluids and electrolytes such as sodium, calcium and potassium are given to replace the body fluids lost through diarrhea. In case of persistent diarrhea, hospitalization may be necessary for administration of intravenous (IV) fluids and salts.
- Antibiotics are given to kill the causative bacteria and to improve the symptoms. In case food poisoning caused by listeria germs, intravenous antibiotics may be necessary. Pregnant women need a prompt treatment with antibiotics to prevent the infection from spreading to the baby in the womb. However, antibiotics are not helpful in case of food poisoning due to viruses.
Some of the home remedies which are helpful to recover from food poisonings include:
- Taking adequate rest to overcome weakness
- Drinking plenty of fluids and water to prevent dehydration
- Taking oral rehydration fluids (ORS) which are available over-the-counter (OTC) especially if any other illness is present
- Eating in small portions while choosing bland foods such as rice, banana and toast until the condition improves
- Avoiding foods and substances such as caffeine, alcohol and other foods which can irritate the digestive system