The Medical Minute: Treating and Avoiding Food-Borne Illnesses

| October 2, 2022

HERSHEY, Pa. – If you ever suffered through a case of food poisoning, you probably wondered what happened–and what you can do to make sure it never happens again.

Dr. Ananya Daggubati, site director of the John R. Dietz Emergency Department at Penn State Health Holy Spirit Hospital, has advice on how to avoid food-borne illnesses and what to do if you find yourself suffering from a case of food poisoning.

What are food-borne illnesses?

Food-borne illnesses, also called food poisoning, are different from a typical gastrointestinal bug, even though the symptoms and treatments are similar. Food poisoning is usually caused by bacteria living in food or the toxins released by those bacteria.

The most common culprits of food-borne illnesses are contaminated meat and poultry. When food is mishandled, bacteria transfers from hands onto the food. These foods can also become contaminated from being undercooked or a lack of proper refrigeration.

What are the symptoms?

Daggubati says food-borne illnesses fall into two categories:

  • The first is caused by toxins released by the bacteria living in the food and is characterized by nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea within a few hours of eating the contaminated food. Because this type of food poisoning only lasts about a day, Daggubati recommends waiting it out unless you develop more serious symptoms like severe abdominal pain, high fever, bloody diarrhea, or severe dehydration. If this happens, you should seek medical help immediately.
  • The second category of food poisoning is caused directly by bacteria like salmonella, shigella, or E. coli. This kind of food poisoning causes more severe symptoms, like bloody diarrhea or severe abdominal pain, which require immediate medical attention and possibly antibiotics.

How do I avoid food-borne illnesses?

The best way to avoid food poisoning is to practice hand hygiene. Wash your hands before handling food and make sure it is properly cooked and refrigerated.

“Make sure hot food stays hot and cold food stays cold,” Daggubati said.

Unfortunately, bacteria-contaminated foods don’t necessarily look or smell bad.

“It’s important to practice hand hygiene, cook your food properly and refrigerate it quickly, because there is no way to tell just by looking at it,” Daggubati said.

I have food poisoning. Now what?

Daggubati usually recommends a wait-and-see approach for most food-borne illnesses. The most important thing you can do is stay hydrated by drinking small sips of water or Gatorade. Eat bland foods like crackers or bananas in small amounts and rest in order to give your body time to get through it.

“We generally recommend that if you’re having non-bloody diarrhea, mild nausea, and vomiting, try to wait it out because your body is trying to do its job and flush out toxins,” Daggubati said. “If you start having those more serious symptoms, that’s when you should come in.”

The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature produced by Penn State Health. Articles feature the expertise of faculty, physicians, and staff, and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.


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