Quick & Queasy: Food Poisoning Comes On Fast but Recovery Isn't Far Off
By Sam Smith, MD, Surgeon in Chief, Arkansas Children's Hospital
It's ruined many a favorite restaurant and forced even the biggest foodies to eliminate beloved dishes from their diets. I'm talking about a topic that's especially hard to stomach: food poisoning.
These bugs certainly don't discriminate. Just about everyone will experience a bout of food poisoning at some point in their life. I like to tell people it's an "attic versus basement situation." Basically, a bug needs to get out of the house one way or the other, right? This means a rough 24 hours for anyone with food poisoning, as they'll likely deal with vomiting and diarrhea until the bacteria is out of their system.
And many will likely never touch another morsel of the offending food!
The symptoms of food poisoning are pretty obvious and usually begin 1-3 days after eating contaminated food. The person affected starts feeling nauseated with cramps followed by vomiting and diarrhea. Some toxins from these bugs can cause symptoms in a much shorted times with vomiting as the main presentation.
Foods that are especially susceptible to contamination if not handled, cooked, or stored properly are unpasteurized milk, raw eggs, raw ground meat and poultry, raw shellfish, and previously prepared foods.
So what do you need to know if you suspect that your rare hamburger is being more than just a little disagreeable? First of all, carefully hydrate. Yes, it can be difficult to keep liquids down when you're feeling so sick, but it's important to sip water or a drink containing electrolytes that can help you from feeling so washed out and weak.
Food poisoning rarely requires any treatment beyond this, though it obviously helps to lay low and rest. Resist the urge to take anti-diarrheal medications, as it's best for everything to be expelled. If you stop the process, then the bug may remain in your system longer and cause even more discomfort.
While food poisoning feels just terrible, it doesn't usually last long. Typically a few miserable hours and generally less than a day.
When do you need to reach out to a doctor? In children, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends checking with a pediatrician when food poisoning symptoms have gone on for more than eight hours. Other symptoms that should be taken seriously and may require medical attention include dehydration, bloody diarrhea, high fever, large volumes of water in the stool, alternating constipation and diarrhea or a general change in a child's mental status, including confusion, weakness or hallucinations.
I can attest to the importance of seeking medical care when it's really needed with food poisoning. As a med student, you eat pretty much anything you can get your hands on between classes and study sessions. I got ahold of something that soured and I recall it being a different kind of illness than anything else I'd experienced.
On top of the gastrointestinal symptoms, I was so dizzy I couldn't even sit up. In hindsight, I should have gone to the emergency department because I probably needed IV fluids. Don't try to be strong when you reach that point! And be especially vigilant for those symptoms in children.
In the more severe cases, we do worry about E. coli especially the toxin producing kind. This bacteria is found everywhere, including in meat. It is often identified in cases of undercooked ground beef, and has recently turned up in outbreaks among raw produce. It is associated with bloody diarrhea and kidney failure. This is another reason why it's important to follow up with a physician if symptoms are lasting a long time and seem to be worsening.
Luckily, most cases of food poisoning require no intervention beyond rest and fluids. We can be careful to ensure that we don't go through the experience again, though.
Some tips for avoiding food-borne illness from healthychildren.org, a website of the AAP:
- Be especially careful when preparing raw meats. Before moving onto the next step in food preparations, always wash your hands, utensils and any surfaces that came in contact with raw meat using hot, soapy water. Be thorough!
- Wash hands frequently anyway. Before you start cooking, wash! In the middle of the meal prep, wash! Before you serve the meal, wash! (And don't forget to wash them every time you stop to use the restroom or change your baby's diaper, too.)
- Do not prepare meals while you are sick, especially if you've had gastrointestinal symptoms.
- Buy meats from reputable suppliers.
- Always cook meats and other foods to appropriate temperatures. Don't be afraid to send back a meal in a restaurant if it's undercooked!
- Never consume food that has been left out for more than two hours at room temperature. This includes prepared foods, meats, cheese, dairy and items that include mayonnaise.
Every time I think about that med school experience, I hope I never come down with food poisoning again. It taught me to be especially cautious in the kitchen and to consider my dining-out options carefully. But at least if it happens again, I'll know to seek treatment if needed and take comfort in the fact that recovery is just a few sweet hours away.
Here's another tip: Be sure to download the new MyACH iPhone app, free from Arkansas Children's Hospital in the App Store. Everything a busy parent needs – from a health library to storage for your child's health info, insurance, medications and more.
Sam Smith, MD, is surgeon in chief at Arkansas Children's Hospital and a professor of Surgery at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. He writes a column each week covering a variety of kids' medical concerns. If you have a topic you'd like him to consider addressing, email firstname.lastname@example.org.