Was it Food Poisoning or a “Stomach Flu”?

All this talk about fruits and vegetables reminds me of…food poisoning. In the recent past, we’ve had several outbreaks of food borne illnesses that have caught our attention- first the E-Coli in hamburgers, then the Salmonella outbreaks from eating tuna (or perhaps from handling small turtles), and let’s not forget the Listeria-infected cantaloupes!  As such, I thought it would be helpful to go over some facts about food poisoning.

First of all, you are unlikely to know if your last bout of intense stomach upset was the result of food poisoning rather than a “stomach virus”, unless there was a specific, easily identifiable source and obvious consequences (four coworkers had egg salad, the other ten had ham sandwiches, and only the four egg-eaters were sick that night). For every one case of food poisoning that is reported, the CDC estimates there are at least another 30 cases that went unreported for this very reason.

The good news here is that the treatment really is the same, regardless of the source of the stomach upset (nausea, vomiting and/or diarrhea). The vast majority of food poisoning does NOT require specific treatment such as an antibiotic. In general, the best treatment is to gently stay hydrated (watered down sports drinks seem to work the best), rest, and avoid irritating your stomach for a few days by sticking to a relatively bland diet free of caffeine, alcohol, dairy or spicy foods.

Food-borne illnesses are very common, with over 38 million cases of gastroenteritis , over 70,000 hospitalizations and over 1600 deaths per year in the United States alone. The agents that are the most lethal (cause the greatest number of deaths) are Salmonella, Listeria, Toxoplasma and norovirus, although in healthy adults, these diseases are only occasionally severe. Additional food poisoning culprits include the bacteria Campylobacter, Shigella, Yersinia, Clostridium botulinum (causes botulism) and Staph. Stay tuned this month for more details on these illnesses.

BOTTOM LINE: Food poisoning is common, but identification of the source or causative agent is much less common and not usually medically significant. Prevention is definitely worth a pound of cure for these illnesses!

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