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Many people use the words “foodborne illness” and “food poisoning” interchangeably, but they have different meanings:

  • Foodborne illness is caused by eating contaminated food. You may get sick within minutes or develop symptoms several weeks later. Common symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and fever. Some people mistakenly describe their illness as the “flu” or “stomach flu.” But seasonal flu, or influenza, is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza virus. Foodborne illness is caused by harmful bacteria or other pathogens in contaminated food.
  • Food poisoning is a type of foodborne illness caused by swallowing toxins, a form of poison caused by microorganisms in food. Symptoms of food poisoning begin quickly, usually within 60 minutes after eating the contaminated food. They begin with numbness or tingling of the face, arms and legs, followed by headache, dizziness and nausea. Cases of severe poisoning may cause muscle paralysis and respiratory failure. Botulism, one type of food poisoning, results from eating improperly canned food. Eating shellfish harvested in unsafe waters causes another type of food poisoning. These toxins cannot be killed by cooking or freezing.

Most types of foodborne illness are caused by viruses, bacteria and other pathogens in food. Norovirus, the most common cause of foodborne illness in the United States, is a virus. The next most common causes are bacteria, including Salmonella, Clostridium perfringens, Campylobacter and Staphylococcus aureus, aka Staph.

Any food can become contaminated when not handled properly. Raw animal foods — including raw meat and poultry, raw eggs, unpasteurized milk and raw shellfish — are the most likely to be contaminated. Cooking to recommended temperatures destroys disease-causing bacteria and viruses. Raw fruits and vegetables may also be contaminated. Thorough washing will decrease, but not eliminate, contamination. Alfalfa sprouts and other raw sprouts pose a special risk because they are grown under conditions that are also ideal for growing bacteria and because they are often eaten uncooked. Food can easily become contaminated when it comes into contact with bare hands, contaminated utensils or other surfaces.

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Everyone is at risk for getting a foodborne illness, but some people are at greater risk for severe illnesses or even death. High-risk groups include infants, young children, pregnant women, older adults and people with weakened immune systems.

Every year, one in six Americans will be affected by a foodborne illness. For many people the symptoms are mild and usually go away in one or two days. If you suspect a foodborne illness, monitor your symptoms and stay hydrated. Since the illness can be spread to others, take extra care to wash your hands and any surfaces you touch.

If you are in a high-risk group, seek medical care immediately. Likewise, call your health care provider if symptoms persist or are severe, such as excessive nausea and vomiting, bloody diarrhea or high fever. To look for clues about the source of your illness, your provider may collect a stool specimen for laboratory analysis.

If you suspect the illness was caused by food eaten at a large gathering, restaurant or other food service facility, call RiverStone Health at 256-2770. RiverStone Health investigators will attempt to identify the source of the illness and prevent others from becoming ill.

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Marilyn Tapia, the director of Environmental Health Services at RiverStone Health, may be reached at 651.6576 or marilyn.tap@riverstonehealth.org.

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