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Foodborne Illness: What Are the Symptoms and When Should You See a Doctor?

Thursday, September 22, 2016 8:48 AM

Foodborne illness is in the news and should always be taken seriously. Prevention is key—cooking meat properly and ensuring that raw food is thoroughly washed before serving—but knowledge of symptoms and treatment options can keep foodborne illnesses from becoming much worse. 

With the latest series of recalls due to listeria, many are looking to be more aware of potential bacteria in their foods. 

Jerrold B. Leikin, MD, Medical Toxicologist discusses five food-borne bacterium, including symptoms and required treatments:

Listeria is a bacterium that is found in soil, water and animal feces. The bacteria can find its way into food, however, typically via raw vegetables that have not been properly cleaned, animal protein, unpasteurized milk or foods that include unpasteurized milk and some processed foods like soft cheese and deli meats.  Recently, outbreaks due to contaminated ice cream, cole slaw, alfalfa sprouts and  hot dogs have occurred. 

  • Symptoms: Exposure to the listeria bacteria can cause fever, muscle aches, diarrhea and nausea. Symptoms can develop as quickly as a few days after exposure or take as long as two months to appear. If the infection is more severe and spreads to the nervous system, symptoms could also include headache, stiffness in the neck, confusion or inability to remain alert, loss of balance and convulsions. These symptoms could indicate bacterial meningitis, which is life-threatening, and will require immediate medical attention.
  • Treatment: If you have eaten food that has been recalled because of a concern over listeria and believe you are experiencing any of the symptoms listed, seek medical attention as soon as possible. If you are pregnant, see your doctor immediately as even a mild infection can cause severe harm to your baby. 

Salmonella is most commonly found in meat and eggs but raw vegetables can also be contaminated if they are handled by unwashed hands.  If meat and eggs are undercooked or vegetables are not properly washed, salmonella can cause mild to severe gastrointestinal illness.  Unpasteurized milk can also harbor salmonella.

  • Symptoms: Those who have salmonella poisoning will run a fever and experience diarrhea and abdominal cramping. Symptoms usually develop 12 to 72 hours after exposure and symptoms can last from four to seven days.
  • Treatment: Most people will not require treatment. Babies and older adults who have weaker immune systems should be carefully monitored as dehydration could cause more severe reactions. 

Escherichia coli (E. coli) is harmless in some cases and can cause serious illness in others. E. coli exposure could result from the consumption of contaminated raw vegetables and undercooked ground beef.

  • Symptoms: Diarrhea and abdominal cramping can occur. In particularly virulent strains, cramps are accompanied by bloody stools and vomiting. Symptoms are generally more severe for young children and older adults and, while rare, both groups have a greater risk of developing a form of life-threatening kidney failure known as hemolytic uremic syndrome.
  • Treatment: There is no medication that can treat an E. coli infection. Less severe infections will merely require rest and fluids. Anti-diarrheal medication is not recommended because it slows digestion, which will ultimately remove the infection from the body. For those suffering an infection from a more severe strain (called enterohemorrhagic or E. coli 0157:H7) that can cause kidney problems, hospitalization will be required. 

Botulism is a rare but very serious illness that is caused by consuming food contaminated with the botulinum toxin. Unlike other foodborne illnesses that affect mostly the gastrointestinal system, botulism attacks the nervous system causing paralysis from top to bottom, starting with the eyes and face.  It is usually found in home-canned foods, poorly preserved meat, marine products, or liver pâté.  Infant (intestinal) botulism can occur in babies under one year old and has been correlated with ingesting spores found in honey.  Initial symptoms of infant botulism include lethargy, poor feeding, weak cry, constipation, and progressive weakness.  

  • Symptoms: The symptoms of botulism can be severe.  In addition to paralysis, other symptoms include: fatigue, vomiting, nausea, difficulty swallowing, blurred or double vision, muscle weakness and lack of fever.
  • Treatment: Botulism must be treated and it must be treated quickly. If identified early, victims can be treated with an antitoxin that prevents the infection from spreading into the bloodstream. If not treated early, botulism can result in permanent paralysis or even death. 

Shigella is a highly infectious bacterium, most commonly found in potatoes, milk products, tossed salads, stewed apples and raw oysters.  Outbreaks of food poisoning usually occur in the summer.

  • Symptoms: Acute onset of fever, abdominal cramping and a large volume of very watery diarrhea can occur within 3 days of exposure.  The fever usually resolves within 48 hours; however the diarrhea can turn bloody.  Reactive arthritis can occur after diarrhea resolves, but rarely.  
  • Treatment:  Most people will not require specific treatment.  Babies and the elderly should be carefully monitored for dehydration.  Anti-motility (anti diarrhea) agents are usually avoided due to its potential for worsening the infection in the colon.