Food poisoning refers to poisoning that occurs due to eating foods contaminated with toxins or poisonous substances secreted by some bacteria. Food poisoning is more common in areas with poor sanitation or living conditions (often occurs in community feasts, cooked and served under unhygienic conditions or food stored under such conditions for several hours). Most cases of food poisoning are from common bacteria like Staphylococcus or E. coli.
How does food poisoning occur?
Food or water can get contaminated due to its handling by a person infected with or carrying micro-organisms causing food poisoning. Improper cleaning and washing of fruits and vegetables, and improper cooking of food can also cause food poisoning.
Infants and elderly people have the greatest risk for food poisoning. One is also at higher risk if there is a a serious medical condition, like kidney disease or diabetes, a weakened immune system, etc.
What are the symptoms?
Food poisoning generally occurs within 2 to 3 hours of eating or drinking infected food or water; however it may occur earlier or later. The symptoms include nausea (a feeling of vomiting), vomiting, pain in the abdomen and diarrhoea. Other symptoms are fever, cold sweats, weakness, headache and dehydration.
How is it diagnosed?
For diagnosis, the doctor reviews the symptoms, examines the patient and suggests laboratory testing of a sample of stools and the suspected food if available. A very important symptom for diagnosing it is that all the people who ate the same food get infected. In such cases, a careful analysis of food, to correlate symptoms to the food items consumed by those affected and those unaffected helps to pinpoint the most likely item which might have been infected.
What is the treatment?
One usually recovers from the most common types of food poisoning within a couple of days. The goal is to feel better and avoid dehydration.
The treatment is mostly supportive i.e. treatment of dehydration and replacing salts. Some patients may need treatment of symptoms like drugs to treat vomiting. Occasionally antibiotics may be required if the organisms are demonstrated on laboratory examination; however most of the time these are not required because patients improve soon after initiation of supportive measures.
Self-care measures include drinking clean or boiled water with some salt and sugar at frequent intervals. It is important to drink water often to prevent the patient from getting dehydrated because of diarrhoea and vomiting.
If there is diarrhoea and the patient is unable to drink fluids (for example, due to nausea or vomiting), he may need medical attention and intravenous fluids. This is especially true for young children.
What can be done to prevent food poisoning?
The following points should be considered to prevent food poisoning:
Drinking water should be clean and safe.
Food should be kept covered while stored to avoid flies and insects from sitting on it.
Buying food from roadside vendors should be avoided.
Fruits and vegetables should be washed properly before eating.
Food should be cooked properly.
Do not use outdated foods, packaged food with a broken seal, or cans that are bulging or have a dent.
Do not use foods that have an unusual odor or a spoiled taste.