We all know that eating "bad" food can make a person sick. One way or another, diarrhea and other gastrointestinal problems from bacteria or viruses can really get to us. These bugs start out in human gut, get excreted through the bowel, cling to the hands of anyone who touches them, and are then shared by those who consume contaminated food or drink.
A long-term Food and Drug Administration study found that the main culprits of produce contamination, which is the most frequent source of food poisoning, are biological hazards like Salmonella, E. coli (O157:H7), Shigella, Hepatitis A, and Cyclospora.
Here's some brief description of the organisms, prevention, and treatment.
Most persons infected with Salmonella develop diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps 12 to 72 hours after infection. The illness usually lasts 4 to 7 days, and most people recover without treatment. However, in some persons, the diarrhea may be so severe that the patient needs to be hospitalized. Only laboratory tests of stool (feces) of an infected person can identify Salmonella.
Live poultry, chicks and young birds, tahini sesame paste, and small pet turtles have recently caused multistate outbreaks of Salmonella. Wash hands after touching animals in their environment.
Escherichia coli, or E. coli for short, lives in the lower intestine (bowel) of warm-blooded organisms like humans. Harmless strains are part of normal gut flora and prevent other bacteria from invading the gut. They also produce vitamin K2.
However, bad strains of E. coli (like O157:H7) can cause illness, either diarrhea or disease outside the intestinal tract. Diarrhea-causing E. coli (six types) usually come from contaminated water or food, or through contact with animals or people. They're involved in gastroenteritis, urinary tract infections, respiratory illness and pneumonia, neonatal (baby) meningitis, and other disorders. Exclusively anal sex or vaginal-after-anal can cause fecal contamination with E. coli; and in women, wiping back to front on the toilet.
Eating contaminated food, such as uncooked meat, or drinking unpasteurized (raw) milk, water, or juice that has not been disinfected may cause intestinal E. coli infection. So can contact with cattle or contact with the feces of infected people.
Shiga toxin E. coli (STEC) cause more severe disease, including severe stomach cramps, diarrhea (often bloody), and vomiting. Hemolytic uremic syndrome, a type of kidney failure that can be fatal, may develop in 5-10% of STEC patients. Signs and symptoms include include decreased frequency of urination, feeling very tired, and losing pink color in cheeks and inside the lower eyelids. Physicians must use lab tests to identify STEC infections.
If you have diarrhea that lasts for more than 3 days, or is accompanied by high fever, blood in the stool, or so much vomiting that you cannot keep liquids down and you pass very little urine, contact your healthcare provider.
A close relative of Salmonella, Shigella causes bloody or mucous diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and often fever. Direct person-to-person contact spreads the disease. People contract Shigella when they touch their mouths, eat contaminated food, or swallow contaminated water, including pool water.
The infection is common among children between the ages of 2 and 4, mainly because parents or child care providers fail to wash hands before changing a child's diapers or helping toddlers with toilet training. Sexually active gay men and people living with poor sanitation are also at higher risk.
Shigella infection usually clears up without complications, although the complications may be life-threatening. The Mayo Clinic advises you to contact a doctor or seek urgent care if you or your child has bloody diarrhea or diarrhea severe enough to cause dehydration or weight loss, or if you or your child has diarrhea and a fever of 101 F (38 C) or higher.
Hepatitis A is the mildest and least serious form of inflammation (irritation and swelling) of the liver. Unlike other forms of hepatitis infection, it does not become chronic. About 3,600 cases are reported every year, but many go undiagnosed.
Contaminated fruits, vegetables, shellfish, and water are common sources of hep A. Even ice can carry this pathogen. The virus spreads more rapidly in places where people are in close contact.
There is an effective vaccine. It takes a month to start protecting you. Remember these precautions:
- Always wash your hands thoroughly after using the restroom.
- Always wash your hands thoroughly when you come in contact with an infected person's blood, other bodily fluid, or feces.
- Avoid unclean food and water.
Under treatment, almost all who get hepatitis A recover within 3 to 6 months.
If your lifestyle includes any of the conditions listed below, ask your health provider if you should receive the vaccine and/or immune globulin:
- You live with someone who has hepatitis A.
- You recently had sexual contact with someone who has hepatitis A.
- You have had close personal contact over a period of time with someone who has hepatitis A.
- You recently ate at a restaurant found to be infected or contaminated with hepatitis A.
- You recently shared illegal drugs, either injected or noninjected, with someone who has hepatitis A.
When traveling to other countries, you can guard against hepatitis A:
- Get vaccinated if you are traveling to countries where outbreaks of this disease occur.
- Avoid dairy products on your trip.
- Stay away from raw or undercooked meat and fish.
- Peel fresh fruits and vegetables yourself, and watch out for sliced fruit that may have been washed in contaminated water.
- Do not buy food from street vendors.
- Use only carbonated bottled water for brushing teeth and drinking.
- Avoid putting ice in your drinks or food.
- If no water is available and you have cooking facilities, bring the water to a full boil for at least one minute.
- Make sure heated food is hot to the touch. Eat it right away.
Cyclospora is a relatively new stomach bug (under 15 years) in the U.S.A. The summer of 2013 saw an unusually large number of cases. Like other gastrointestinal diseases, Cyclospora originates in human feces. People don't catch usually it directly from other people, but from eating fresh fruits or vegetables or drinking water contaminated with the virus.
Signs and symptoms of Cyclospora include watery diarrhea, stomach and gut cramping, weight loss, and anorexia. They usually begin within one week after infection and can remain for up to a month following the illness. Laboratory tests are not usually done. For most people (97%), rest and plenty of fluids help to treat this illness. Health practitioners treat serious infections with combined antibiotics like Bactrim, Septra, or Pediazole.
Based in Chicago, Sandy Dechert has been covering science and health for Examiner.com since the webzine's official startup. In the health area, she began investigating MERS before the disease was officially named and H7N9 human influenza on the day the Chinese announced it. She has also followed American seasonal influenza, the cancer diagnoses of public figures like Robin Roberts and Valerie Harper, and the creation, enactment, and progress of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Sandy's science articles appear frequently in Examiner's women's and sexual health columns and under environment and energy, as well as elsewhere in the digital world.
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