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Five Most Common Foodborne Illnesses

foodborne illnesses

Foodborne illness, as the words suggest, is sickness due to the food you eat. Although colloquially referred to as “food poisoning,” it’s a variety of infections borne by bacteria, viruses, and parasites.

Many infections are caused by consuming food that has spoiled or gone bad, others by improper preparation. For example, chicken must reach an internal temperature of 165° Fahrenheit before it’s safe to eat. You should wash certain foods, such as fruits and vegetables, to remove pesticides and other chemicals before you eat them.

According to researchers, there are more than 250 identified foodborne illnesses. These are the five most common.

Listeria

Listeria is a bacteria that can cause severe symptoms, such as:

•   Fever

•   Confusion

•   Vomiting

•   Diarrhea

•   Stiff neck and weakness

Listeria is mostly in ready-to-eat deli meats, hot dogs, raw milk or unpasteurized dairy products, fresh sprouts and more. The bacteria typically originates from the soil and water, as well as contaminated meat-processing plants. Poultry and beef are the most commonly affected, but all meats exposed to contamination have the potential to carry the disease.

Listeria differs from other foodborne illnesses because it can live and continue to grow in cold temperatures, including inside a refrigerator. The best way to protect yourself is to cook your food correctly and only consume pasteurized dairy products.

Newborns are most susceptible to the disease, as are people with weakened immune systems, those over 65 and pregnant women. If the infection occurs during pregnancy, it can get transferred to the baby through the placenta.

E. Coli

E. Coli (short for Escherichia coli ) is a type of bacteria that can cause symptoms like:

•   Nausea and vomiting

•   Stomach cramps

•   Diarrhea

•   Fever

•   Loss of appetite

•   Dehydration

There are many strands of this bacteria, categorized into pathotypes. The majority of them don’t cause any symptoms. When there are symptoms, the most likely to occur is diarrhea. However, this infection can lead to more severe illness, such as urinary tract infections, respiratory ailments, pneumonia, and more.

E. coli, found in the environment, foods, and the intestines of both people and animals, begins when you swallow tiny amounts of human or animal fecal matter. Exposure is surprisingly prevalent, often linked to contaminated food, unpasteurized milk, water that has not gotten disinfected, and other sources.

This type of infection is preventable, mainly by washing your hands after any contact with feces (such as when going to the bathroom or changing a diaper). You should also be sure to cook meat thoroughly before consumption. Also try to avoid swallowing water when swimming in ponds, lakes, streams, and pools.

Salmonella

A salmonella infection can lead to symptoms such as:

•   Nausea and vomiting

•   Headache

•   Abdominal cramps

•   Diarrhea

•   Fever and chills

This bacteria lives in the intestines of people and animals, most commonly birds. Other meats can get contaminated if they come in contact with feces during the butchering process, as can seafood caught in water containing fecal matter. Chickens that carry the bacteria can pass it along to any eggs they produce. Some fresh produce, especially imported foods, can come in contact with feces or contaminated water while being grown.

There are steps you can take to avoid salmonella. The first is to always wash your hands after using the restroom and before eating or preparing food. You should refrain from eating foods that contain raw eggs or meat, like cookie dough or sushi, and store all raw poultry and seafood away from other foods to prevent cross-contamination.

Norovirus

Norovirus is an extremely contagious virus that can cause symptoms like:

•   Nausea and vomiting

•   Abdominal cramps

•   Diarrhea

•   Fever

•   Muscle pain

This virus is known for its sudden onset, usually about 12 to 48 hours after exposure, and most commonly occurs in crowded environments such as hospitals, nursing homes, schools, daycares, airplanes, and cruise ships. In most cases, symptoms disappear within a few days.

Norovirus often results when you accidentally get tiny particles of feces or vomit from an infected person in your mouth. Most commonly, however, the virus can be ingested through contaminated food or water or sharing food or a drink with an infected person. You can also transfer the virus by touching a contaminated surface and then putting your fingers in your mouth.

Hepatitis A

The hepatitis A virus causes a contagious liver infection, with symptoms such as:

•   Nausea and vomiting

•   Loss of appetite

•   Fatigue

•   Abdominal and joint pain

•   Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of eyes)

•   Intense itching

This virus explicitly targets liver cells. The resulting inflammation can negatively affect liver function and even cause severe complications if it lasts several months or longer. You’re at an increased risk for contracting infection if you’re exposed to an infected person, work in childcare or use illegal drugs. Hepatitis A virus commonly passes through food or water contaminated with feces. That can happen if you eat something prepared by food handlers who fail to wash their hands after using the restroom, or if your seafood came from water polluted by sewage. You can even contract the infection after having sex with someone who already has the virus.

According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 1 in 10 people contracts a foodborne illness every year, 420,000 of which result in death. With such high chances of coming into contact with contaminated food, it’s important to stay educated about the most common symptoms and preventative measures. If you experience severe symptoms for more than a week, be sure to make an appointment with your family doctor. 

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