The meal was fantastic — at least you thought so when you paid the bill. However, before you went to bed that night, you felt a little … sketchy. By the next morning, the bathroom was your new best friend.
That chicken did seem lukewarm when it arrived at your table; was it undercooked? Did the server who rushed out of the bathroom not recite the ABC song while washing his hands? Did he even wash his hands?
Whatever its cause, food poisoning is an unpleasant end to any meal. Dr. Phil Yphantides, medical director for the Sharp Rees-Stealy Urgent Care Centers, answers some important questions about this gastrointestinal malady.
What exactly is food poisoning?
Food poisoning, known in the medical community as “foodborne illness,” refers to an illness brought on by eating spoiled or contaminated food containing germs or toxins. Public health statistics tell us that on average, U.S. residents will have a foodborne illness about once every three or four years.
What are its symptoms?
The main symptoms are nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and diarrhea. The most common germs causing foodborne illness are viruses and bacteria, though we sometimes see parasites. Some foodborne germs cause symptoms within a few hours of eating, and others can cause delayed illness with symptoms starting over one week after exposure.
What should you do if you believe you are suffering from food poisoning?
Fortunately, most foodborne illness resolves within 48 to 72 hours. The most important thing to do is drink plenty of fluids, even small sips, to prevent dehydration. Dehydration happens when the body loses too much fluid (from vomiting or diarrhea). Once nausea has decreased, eat small low-fat meals, such as the BRAT diet (Bread, Rice, Applesauce and Toast), until the diarrhea resolves.
When should you call the doctor or go to urgent care?
Seek medical attention if you develop severe belly pain; cannot eat or drink; vomit blood or see blood in your diarrhea; have a fever above 100.4° F (or 38° C); or if you have ongoing symptoms for more than four days, especially if you recently traveled outside the country.
What can you do to prevent food poisoning?
Wash your hands frequently, especially after using the restroom, blowing your nose, changing diapers, petting animals or taking out the trash. You should also avoid drinking unpasteurized milk, and fully cook eggs before eating them. Cook all meat and seafood until well-done. Wash fruits and vegetables well before eating, and thoroughly wash hands, knives and cutting boards with soap and water after working with raw meats.
Dining out will always pose a small risk. Restaurant owners and workers must be careful to handle food properly and maintain a clean environment for our collective safety. The public health department monitors restaurants and businesses selling food — consumers should be wise about selecting eateries with a good reputation for safety; look for an “A” inspection sign in the window.
Realize at the end of the day that despite our best efforts, we are regularly in contact with germs in the environment. Thankfully, the human immune system does an amazing job keeping us healthy.