The collection of ailments collectively known as food poisoning is second only to the common cold as the most popular infection in America. Over 80 million of us will be affected by food poisoning this year and almost 10,000 of those cases will be end up fatally.
Often food poisoning symptoms are attributed to something else and many times we have no idea what exactly it was we ate that poisoned us. In addition to nausea and throwing up, typical symptoms of food poisoning include cramps, diarrhea, fever and chills. Anyone with a weakened immune system is a candidate for the more serious types of infection, including young children and the elderly as well as those suffering from chronic illness and, it goes without saying, HIV patients. The good thing about food poisoning is that, as painful and uncomfortable as it might be, it usually passes pretty quickly and without the need for medical attention. One caveat to this, however, is the threat of dehydration, especially if you suffer intense vomiting or diarrhea. Like a set of dominoes falling, the food poisoning can dehydrate your system, weakening your immune system which makes you susceptible to other infections, including colds. One way to tell if someone is too dehydrated is too watch out for a slightly fruity odor emanating from them. Usually this will occur in those who have also been feverish. If you detect the fruity aroma and notice a jaundiced look on the skin, immediately go to the doctor or emergency room as an IV may be necessary to replace lost electrolytes.
Food poisoning is caused by eating food that has been contaminated either bacterially or virally, or by eating raw or undercooked food that has been infested by parasites. Since the food you eat tonight in your favorite restaurant may have literally traveled thousands of miles from where it was caught or raised, following the trail of possible contamination is almost impossible. That said, however, most contamination occurs because of unhealthy handling and preparation in the restaurant or home.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a whole heck of a lot you can do to protect yourself from improper handling of your food in a restaurant, but you can at least take a few simple steps to decrease chances. In the first place, don’t order food normally eaten raw in a restaurant with which you are unfamiliar. The rise in popularity of sushi has put a major crimp in this strategy, but if you’re going to raw fish I say you’re probably a risk taker anyway, so go for it. At least at restaurants you know and trust. Other than not eating something you like, one thing you can do when eating out is wash off utensils before using them. Yes, they’ve probably been through a high temp dishwasher, but then again maybe you came in just as the restaurant was running low on forks. If you’ve never worked in a restaurant it may shock you to think that restaurants don’t keep a big enough supply of utensils to avoid this possibility. But I have worked in them and I know better.
Clean off the spoons and forks, okay?
Cooking at home offers more opportunities for avoiding the runs and the praying to the porcelain gods. First off, always wash your hands and after handling any raw meats. And for added protection, you might even want to take off any rings you’ve got on. Never, never, never let raw food touched any unwashed surface in your kitchen. I mean if you’ve got a big slap of steak and you put it on a plate and the plate just isn’t quite big enough to hold all that beef and the ends drop off over the sides and rest on the counter, well, buddy, just go ahead and cut off those ends and give them to the dog. Better safe than crampy.
When preparing at home keep your raw foods separated from other foods in order to reduce the risk of cross contamination. A lot of people tend to put food out in the morning before they go to work so that it will have thawed out by the time they get home. Well, that’s really what microwaves were invented for. Because if you leave a piece of meat on the counter and it thaws out around noon and you don’t get home until 5:00 you’ve just created a little Disney World for all the bacteria in your house. They will come to that piece of filet mignon and party like it was on sale for $19.99.
Ever taken anything out of the fridge that has a strange shade of pink on it that you’ve never seen anywhere else in nature? That’s a good sign that you want to throw it away. Any food that is discolored or smells like it might have been bought when disco was king should be discarded immediately. Doesn’t matter if it weights two pounds or cost $4.99 a pound. Toss away the money with the meat and save your health. In fact, even if looks bad but doesn’t immediately smell so, don’t take a chance on tasting it just to make sure. Just walk away and don’t look back.
Ever gotten a can out of the pantry that seems to be gaining weight? You know, it’s sort of bulging at one end? Well, don’t even open it to see if it’s good enough to eat. That bulging is caused by the pressure of gases produced by bacterial metabolism and it’s really no different than a sitting at a table when your waiter brings you a plate and right before your eyes the bacteria gather together to visually form the words: EAT THIS AND PUKE! A bulging can is a no-no and you really might even want to reconsider eating from a dented can.
There are several very famous microbes that have made the ten most wanted list when it comes to food poisoning and even if you don’t know exactly what they are, you’ve probably heard of most of them.
Salmonella: Found in undercooked poultry, eggs and dairy products mostly, but also in meats. Although one of the most well-known of food poisoners, not one with the highest risk. One of the problems with salmonella is that food that is contaminated generally doesn’t smell or look bad. If you prefer your eggs sunny-side-up or soft-boiled, you are putting yourself at risk. Also, don’t eat undercooked hamburger.
Listeria: This one can make itself known in vegetables, as well as uncooked meat and fish since it is found in water and soil. Processed foods such as soft cheese, hot dogs and deli food (the chosen food) are subject to contamination as well. The nice thing is that your chances of getting infected are pretty low. The bad thing is that this poisoner is a coward: most of its victims are newborns, young children, elderly people and pregnant women. Keep safe by buying only pasteurized dairy products and keeping a close eye on the date on the food labels.
E. Coli: The Hannibal Lecter of food poisoning in that just about everybody has heard of this guy. Many well known cases have made the news and some of them have been fatal. Most contamination occur in undercooked ground beef, but it can also be passed from one person to another, including by swimming in contaminated water. The ground beef should be a clue that your risk of coming down with this one is high. We are a hamburger nation, after all. Protect yourself by looking at your hamburger to make sure it’s cooked all the way through and when cooking hamburger yourself don’t eat until you’ve gotten rid of all the pink. Also try to avoid any unpasteurized milk or juice or cider and make sure to clean all vegetables thoroughly.
You may have noticed that nothing in this article described food with a high mayo content in connection with food poisoning risk. The common wisdom suggests that if you went to a picnic and came home sick then it was probably the chicken salad or potato salad that did the damage. Well, once again the common wisdom is misinformed. In fact, cooked eggs and potatoes and chicken that are mixed with mayonnaise are probably the healthiest thing you’ll find at a picnic. The reason is that the acid and salt in mayonnaise serves to slow down the growth of all those nasty little bacteria. Believe it or not, you’d be wiser to eat chicken salad left out in the sun all day than fried chicken.
Though, frankly, you’d be better off avoiding both of them.