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E. Coli, Salmonella And Listeria: Three Of The Top 3 Food Contaminants And How To Protect Yourself From Them

It seems like every day there's a new food-poisoning scare or a new food recall. Whether the culprit is E. Coli, Salmonella, Listeria or some other infectious organism, these cases not only can be financially devastating to food producers, retailers and restaurants, they can cause severe illness, even death. Here's what you need to know to protect yourself and your family.

Foodborne Illnesses

Bacteria, viruses and parasites are the most common causes of foodborne sickness, also called food poisoning. Food can be contaminated by these organisms anytime during the production process, from the farmer to the processor to the packager. At restaurants workers, equipment and poor preservation techniques are common sources of contamination. People most at risk for foodborne illness includes the very young, the very old, people with serious medical conditions and those with compromised immune systems.

The Microbiology of Food Poisoning

Although the following three microorganisms are by no means the only organisms that cause food poisoning, they are some of the most common. They are also implicated in many of the most extensive food-poisoning outbreaks in the United States in the past couple of years.

Escherichia Coli (E.Coli) are a large family of bacteria that reside in the digestive tract. Most are harmless and even essential to digestion, but several strains are harmful, causing diarrhea, respiratory illness, urinary tract infections, and other illnesses. It is spread through contact with the feces of contaminated animals or people (such as food service workers who don't wash their hands), as well as through consuming unpasteurized milk, undercooked hamburger, lake water and unwashed raw fruits and vegetables.  Infections can be reduced by avoiding such practices.

Symptoms generally appear 3-4 days after exposure and typically start with a stomachache and diarrhea that gets worse over the next few days. If symptoms persist for more than 3 days or you have a high fever, contact your physician. An infection can be discovered through lab tests, and supportive therapy, such as intravenous hydration, can be started.

Salmonella are bacteria that live in the digestive tracts of humans and animals, especially turtles, reptiles and amphibians. Salmonella on the skin of contaminated people or animals can be spread to other humans and animals, as well as through consumption of contaminated food or water. Symptoms such as stomach cramps, fever and diarrhea typically develop 12 – 72 hours after exposure and lasts 4-7 days. Treatment is usually not necessary unless the diarrhea is severe or the infection gets into the blood stream. This is a life-threatening condition unless treated promptly with antibiotics. Heating to at least 140 degrees F for 12 minutes kills the Salmonella bacteria; however, freezing does not.

Listeria is a bacteria that causes Listeriosis—a serious public health threat, especially in infants, seniors and those with weak immune systems. Infections can occur after eating contaminated food and usually last 1-4 days. Animals can be infected without showing symptoms and can pass the infection to animal-based products, such as meats, dairy and eggs. The bacteria can also be found on raw fruits and vegetables and in contaminated water. Pregnant mothers can pass it on to their babies in utero. It can cause fever, muscle aches and gastrointestinal problems. In older or sick adults, Listeria can cause blood poisoning and meningitis. In pregnant women, it can cause miscarriage. Cooking and pasteurization kills the Listeria bacteria.

Protect Yourself

You can't totally protect yourself from these three food contaminants, but there are precautions you can take to lessen your chances of food poisoning.

  • Follow the safe handling directions on your food package.
  • Cook to the recommended temperature.
  • Wash all raw fruits and vegetables.
  • Make sure dairy products and foods prepared with mayonnaise are stored properly in the refrigerator and not left out in the heat, such as at a picnic.
  • Thoroughly wash your hands and cooking utensils while preparing meals.

Naturally, you can't control restaurant workers who help prepare your meal, but if you pay attention to recalls and news stories about food poisoning outbreaks and visit only reputable restaurants that appear clean and hygienic, you can boost your chances of avoiding a nasty bout of foodborne illness.

For more information, contact a clinic like Choice Medical Group.