The Plainville Citizen reports that a new government report shows that rates of certain foodborne illnesses, such as infection from E. coli bacteria, are dropping due to better food industry policies. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use caution when it comes to food preparation and storage, especially as the weather gets warmer and people start dining in their backyard or packing picnics. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 76 million people contract foodborne diseases every year, affecting more people than the common cold. But many of the symptoms of food poisoning mimic those of the garden-variety flu, sometimes leaving people to wonder if their symptoms were caused by something they ate or by a virus they picked up another way.

Food poisoning can be caused by contamination with a variety of bugs, namely viruses, bacteria and parasites. Common bacterial causes other than the well-recognized E. coli include Salmonella, Shigella, Campylobacter and Listeria. While parasitic organisms, such as Entamoeba histolytica and Giardia lamblia, are less common causes of foodborne illness in the United States, they may be a source for international travelers.
The noroviruses, formerly known as the Norwalk viruses, are the most common of all foodborne illness. Another viral culprit is hepatitis A, which contaminated green onions from Mexico that were served in fast food restaurants earlier this year.
Recognizing Food Poisoning
Despite the prevalence of foodborne illnesses, it can be hard to recognize food poisoning because its symptoms closely resemble the symptoms of an everyday viral infection such as the flu. Like people with a flu that’s settled in the gastrointestinal tract, those with foodborne illness usually suffer from vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain.
“There’s no real easy way to distinguish between many types of foodborne illness and a flu bug, but with the flu, one might be more apt to see generalized aches and pains and just overall not feeling well,” says Cecil Wilson, MD, an internist and a member of the American Medical Association’s board of trustees.
The telltale sign of food poisoning is usually the quick onset of symptoms. “Foodborne illnesses are, by and large, illness that occur in close proximity to exposure,” Dr. Wilson says. “With most viral or bacterial foodborne illnesses, you would eat a meal and then have symptoms within the next 24 to 36 hours. If you are exposed to a bacteria like E. coli or Clostridium, the bacteria that causes botulism, you may eat lunch or dinner and have nausea, vomiting or diarrhea a couple of hours later.”
Parasitic diseases, Dr. Wilson says, are the exception because they can develop over the course of a week or two.
Another clue may lie with the type of food that was most recently consumed. Common culprits are raw or undercooked eggs, meat and fish, particularly shellfish such as shrimp. Unpasteurized milk and juice, as well as fresh fruits, vegetables and cheese are often breeding grounds for viruses and bacteria. Foreign travel or just eating food imported from out of the country can increase risk. And if your symptoms appear during a camping trip or after a picnic, or if you notice other people you feasted with have also become ill, your gastrointestinal symptoms may be due to a case of food poisoning. If family members are ill at different times, however, your symptoms are more likely to be flu-related as it takes time to pass the virus from person to person.
When to Get Help
It’s recommended that children, the elderly, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems visit their physicians if there is a chance they have been exposed to a food pathogen. According to Dr. Wilson, members of these high-risk groups are more vulnerable to foodborne illness and more likely to become seriously ill from it. A visit to the doctor is warranted when people with diarrhea or vomiting have bloody diarrhea, diarrhea that lasts three or more days, an associated fever of over 101? F, symptoms of dehydration or any neurologic symptoms such as weakness.
In such cases, doctors recommend increasing water consumption but if dehydration is severe, IV fluids may be necessary. Stool cultures, and occasionally blood testing, may also be conducted to identify the bacteria or parasite. Treatment will vary depending upon the cause, though antibiotics may be used to treat severe bacterial infections.
Avoiding Contamination
According to the Partnership for Food Safety Education, the four steps for fighting foodborne bacteria are clean, separate, cook and chill:
– Hands
– Cutting boards
– Utensils
– Countertops
– Raw meat, poultry and seafood in the shopping cart and the refrigerator
– Use one cutting board for raw meat, poultry and seafood and one for fruits and vegetables
– Clean all surfaces that make contact with raw meat, poultry or seafood with hot, soapy water
– Use a meat thermometer
– Cook roasts and steaks to 145?F
– Cook poultry to 180?F
– Cook ground meat to 160?F
– Refrigerate perishables, prepared foods and leftovers within two hours
– Never defrost on the counter; use the refrigerator or cold water
– Don’t overcrowd the refrigerator so that air can circulate within it