What Exactly is Food Poisoning?

Woman vomiting into the toilet bowl

Food poisoning, also known as food-borne illness, is the result of eating food or drinking water that have been contaminated by bacteria, viruses, or parasites that are harmful to the human body. It affects approximately 48 million people in the United States alone every year – that’s 1 in 6 – causing them to get sick and sometimes requiring hospitalization. Unlike other viral or bacterial illness (such as the flu), which can be contracted through close contact with an infected person or object, the organisms that cause food poisoning are spread through contaminated food.

Although our food supply is generally quite safe, contamination does occur through improper handling or improper preparation. Infectious organisms are introduced or given the chance to grow in food that has not been cooked properly, or stored correctly, or which has been cross-contaminated during production or processing.

Sometimes when people have the stomach flu, they mistake it for food poisoning because of nausea and vomiting. Although these are symptoms of both illnesses, food poisoning often comes with other painful and uncomfortable symptoms: diarrhea (sometimes bloody) is one of the most common, along with abdominal pain and cramping, fever, and a general sense of uneasiness. Symptoms can also begin within hours of eating the contaminated food, although depending on the infectious agent, it could take a couple of days for signs of food poisoning to show. Diarrhea and vomiting are two of the most problematic of the effects, since they can quickly lead to dehydration, making the situation worse.

Raw meat, poultry, shellfish, or eggs can be potent sources of harmful organisms, and so can raw foods that come into contact with them without being cleaned properly; proper hygiene, both personal and during preparation, can make all the difference. For example, a salad prepared by someone who didn’t wash their hands after touching uncooked chicken, or after using the restroom, can cause food-borne illness in anyone who eats it.

Only about 128,000 of the 48 million annual cases of food poisoning require hospitalization, but it can be extremely serious, so if you think you may have food poisoning, consult your doctor right away.

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