What is Bacterial Food Poisoning?

Emma Lloyd

More than 250 organisms are able to cause disease via food, and there are more than 70 million cases of food-borne illness every year in the United States alone. Food-borne illnesses, which include those caused by bacterial, viral and parasitic infections as well as food toxins, are a leading cause of death worldwide. Bacterial food poisoning is a common cause of both mild and severe food-borne illness. Most cases of bacterial food poisoning are not severe, with mild symptoms that resolve within three or four days.

Vomiting may occur from bacterial food poisoning.
Vomiting may occur from bacterial food poisoning.

Bacterial food poisoning is caused by the presence of bacteria in food. When bacteria contaminate food, they can cause disease through one of two ways. In one, the bacteria produce toxins that cause illness when the food is eaten. In the other, the contaminating bacteria colonize the gastrointestinal tract after the food is eaten, causing inflammation and other symptoms. Common bacterial species that can cause food-borne illness include Salmonella, Escherichia coli and Campylobacter.

Individuals suffering from food poisoning may require medical attention.
Individuals suffering from food poisoning may require medical attention.

The main symptoms of bacterial food poisoning are intestinal problems such as headache, nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and diarrhea. Bacterial toxins can cause additional symptoms that can lead to kidney failure and, in rare cases, can be fatal. Some symptoms are potentially dangerous and require prompt medical attention. These include high fever, blood in stools, an inability to keep liquids down, dehydration and diarrhea that lasts three days or longer.

Rinsing raw chicken in a sink can spread bacteria.
Rinsing raw chicken in a sink can spread bacteria.

These symptoms are of either rapid or gradual onset food poisoning. When symptoms develop rapidly, they can appear as soon as 30 minutes after eating contaminated food. In such cases, the presence of bacterial toxins in the food causes symptoms of food poisoning. When symptoms onset gradually, they develop over a period of several days. In these cases, the symptoms do not appear until the bacteria have colonized in the gastrointestinal tract, causing an active infection.

Raw meat should be kept away from fresh vegetables and other foods that are eaten raw.
Raw meat should be kept away from fresh vegetables and other foods that are eaten raw.

Mild cases of bacterial food poisoning can be treated at home. Solid food should be avoided for about 24 hours, but liquid intake should be maintained in order to prevent dehydration. Alcohol, caffeine and sugar can act as diuretics or can worsen diarrhea and should be avoided. After 24 hours, small amounts of bland foods such as bread, potatoes, rice and lean means can be eaten. If symptoms continue or become worse, medical treatment should be sought.

A Salmonella bacterium, a common cause of food poisoning.
A Salmonella bacterium, a common cause of food poisoning.

Prevention of bacterial food poisoning requires that food be chosen, handled, stored and cooked safely. When fresh food is being purchased, it should be inspected to make sure that the packaging is intact, that the food has not passed its expiration date and that it smells fresh. Cold or frozen foods should be purchased last during a visit to the grocery store.

Many of the symtoms of food poisoning are intestinal, including nausea, vomiting and cramps.
Many of the symtoms of food poisoning are intestinal, including nausea, vomiting and cramps.

Meats should be stored in the coldest part of the refrigerator, preferably at the bottom. Cooked and raw meats should be separated. Cooked or raw meats should be used or frozen within two days. Frozen food should be thawed in the refrigerator and should not be refrozen after thawing.

When preparing and cooking food, all preparation surfaces should be kept clean and sanitized. People who prepare or cook food should wash their hands before and after handling the food and in between handling different types of food. Countertops, utensils and cutting boards should be washed with hot water after preparing raw meats. Finally, meats should be cooked to the correct temperature and remain hot before consuming. Leftovers should be eaten within four days.

Symptoms of bacterial food poisoning include abdominal cramps.
Symptoms of bacterial food poisoning include abdominal cramps.

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