Whether you’re simply throwing down a blanket in the backyard and enjoying a meal al fresco or tasting exotic fare abroad, food poisoning can turn a good time bad in a hurry. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year, approximately one in six Americans (about 48 million people) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of food-borne diseases.
“Most cases of acute infection are usually viral, such as rotavirus and norovirus,” says Dr. Aman Singh, a gastroenterologist on staff at Missouri Baptist Medical Center. “Patients can have either diarrhea or vomiting, or both. But they can also get a fever, headache or muscle aches, cramping and loss of appetite. Symptoms usually start suddenly, and last 48 to 72 hours. Other types of acute infections, such as parasites and even certain bacteria, will linger longer, and symptoms can be more severe, requiring treatment.”
Some foods are more likely to cause illness than others. For example, mass production of foods, particularly poultry contaminated with campylobacter, and fish, especially shellfish (oysters and shrimp), with vibrio contamination, are common culprits. “Eating these foods when they are poorly cooked or raw and/or poor handling of raw meat with cross-contamination on working surfaces during preparation are other causes,” says Dr. James Wessely, St. Luke’s Hospital emergency department medical co-director.
In most cases, symptoms will resolve on their own, although rest and home remedies speed recovery. “Oral rehydration solutions that contain glucose or sucrose and electrolytes can be taken, and these work the best. However, if they are not available, then Gatorade and water with salt crackers can be used,” Singh says. “Imodium may be used in patients with acute diarrhea in whom fever is absent or low-grade, and the stools are not bloody. Pepto-Bismol also can be used. Probiotics, including bacteria that assist in recolonizing the intestine with non-pathogenic flora, can be used as alternative therapy. They have been shown to be useful in treating traveler’s diarrhea.”
If you develop severe or ongoing gastrointestinal symptoms, it’s a good idea to see your primary-care physician. Dehydration, bloody diarrhea, severe abdominal pain, fever of more than 101 degrees or symptoms that continue for more than a week are cause for concern. “Antibiotics that tend to cover most of these infections can shorten the course,” Wessely says. “Otherwise, hydration, either oral or IV, and pain/nausea medications give relief of symptoms.”
Avoiding food-borne illness is largely a matter of good hygiene and thorough cooking. Refrigerate perishable foods within two hours, don’t consume raw or undercooked foods, wash your hands and utensils to avoid cross-contamination—and enjoy your picnic by the seaside!