Food poisoning is often the butt of a lot of jokes in movies, but anyone who has ever found themselves with a case of food poisoning knows that it isn’t funny. Symptoms of food poisoning can range from just mild discomfort to crippling pain, dehydration, and even death. There is no known food poisoning cure, but there are ways to avoid it, recognize the signs, and speed your recovery. How to treat food poisoning is much harder than not getting it in the first place.
Causes of Food Poisoning
Food poisoning is caused by a number of factors including bacteria, viruses, mold, parasites, and allergens. The treatment for each of these is different, however, so it’s important to understand how they show up in our food. Bacteria and viruses are present on just about every surface of the Earth, including just about every type of food. Fortunately, most mammals have evolved to be able to consume most forms of these bacteria and not suffer any ill effects. In fact, some bacteria, such as that typically found in dairy products, is necessary for our health. Some forms of bacteria, however, can cause harm. The most common one is known as E. coli, a strain of bacteria that is typically found in just about everything. This bacteria can cause of wide range of problems from vomiting to death. It tends not to thrive in room temperature food, so most people who wash their produce are able to eat it raw.
It does well in warm temperatures, however, making food products that have been heated at any point in time particularly problematic. Meat and dairy products are particularly susceptible to bacteria. Mold is typically found on food that has absorbed or naturally contains moisture and has been left in a dark place. Most often it is found on fruits, vegetables, cheese, and bread. Moist, warm environments are ideal for growing mold, which is usually transmitted via spores through the air. Most mold is grown after food is purchased.
Parasites are relatively rare in a modern food system, but it still occurs throughout the world. Parasites are usually present in an animal before it is slaughtered or the eggs of the parasite are introduced to the food during processing. Finally, allergens are considered to be a type of food poisoning, but they are actually a result of the consumer’s immune system treating the food as harmful, rather than anything wrong with the food itself. Because its treatment is so different it will be covered only briefly in this article.
How Farmers and Companies Prevent Food Poisoning
For centuries, food poisoning was among the leading causes of death for most populations of people throughout the world. This was mostly because once produce is harvested or an animal is slaughtered, the resulting food simply cannot be maintained at ambient temperature without growing bacteria, mold, or parasites.
For example, before modern farming techniques, milk would come out of a cow or goat at body temperature, and then stay at the temperature of the surrounding air until it was consumed. Unfortunately, this temperature range is prime real estate for bacteria. Until the advent of pasteurization, it was common for young children to sicken and die due to the bacteria they consumed in raw milk. Today, the milk that most people in developed nations drink is almost immediately boiled, then stored at a cool temperature.
The boiling kills any bacteria in the milk, and the cold storage prevents new bacteria from taking up residence and multiplying. It is illegal for milk that has not gone through this process to be sold in most developed nations, and pasteurized milk has been credited as a technological advance that has saved millions of lives. In the case of meat, most processors take steps to protect the health of their cows, pigs, chickens, and other animals. Factory farms keep animals on special diets that prevent them from sharing diseases and parasites. This helps to ensure that very few parasites are present in the meat after slaughter and processing. To further reduce the populations of bacteria and other parasites, meat is often irradiated and/or stored at a cold temperature.
Finally, fruits and vegetables are rarely thought of as foods that can cause food poising, but it is important to store produce properly in order to ensure its safety. Produce is often washed immediately after being picked in order to cut down on contamination issues. As food is prepared in factories and restaurant kitchens, steps are taken to ensure its safety. Most developed countries require food industry workers to adhere to strict standards when it comes to cooking and storing food in order to make sure that it does not become contaminated. For this reason, the vast majority of the food that comes from the developed world is extremely safe.
How to Prevent Food Poisoning
Most cases of food poisoning that occur in the developed world are the result of food being mishandled in home kitchens. While there have been several high profile cases of food poisoning from food coming from factory farms or industrial kitchens in recent years, the truth is that over 90% of food poisoning cases result from mistakes made in the kitchen. Fortunately, there are many ways to prevent becoming sick from the food you eat.
To start, every home kitchen should be thoroughly cleaned and sanitized before and after every meal. While a home kitchen does not have to meet the standards of a commercial space, it is important to use cleaning products that kill bacteria and viruses. There are a number of these available on the commercial market, but many people prefer to use homemade solutions of bleach or ammonia. Home cooks should also wash their hands with antibacterial soap before starting to prepare food.
Once a space is cleaned, it is important to pay attention to the food that is being prepared. For produce, thoroughly wash everything in warm water before starting to prepare food. Using a vegetable brush can help to remove residues left over from the supermarket.
Meats and dairy products are particularly susceptible to bacteria, making it critical for home cooks to be wary when preparing these items.The most important thing to be aware of is the temperature at which these items are stored. Meat and dairy need to be kept at or below 40 F. To do this, make sure that items are placed in the fridge or freezer as soon as they come home from the store. Thaw these items quickly; ideally, use a microwave. The method of allowing meat to thaw on a countertop can cause the product to become room temperature and sit at this temperature for hours. This gives bacteria plenty of time to breed.
Fortunately, proper cooking will kill just about any kind of bacteria or virus that is growing in your food. The proper cooking time for each type of meat can vary, however, so make sure that you use a food thermometer to check the temperature of any type of meat that you cook. Finally, pay attention when storing leftovers. Extra food needs to be immediately sealed and stored at a temperature of less than 40 F. The old method of allowing food to cool on a counter only allows bacteria to grow. If a person does not know how a dish was prepared, or the food emits a strange odor or tastes “off” throw it away immediately. A small amount of wasted food is not worth suffering through a bout of food poisoning.
How to Treat Food Poisoning
Despite all of your efforts to avoid food poisoning, it is possible to make a mistake or eat something that wasn’t properly prepared by someone else. If this happens, it’s important to remember that for most adults with no other health issues, food poisoning is uncomfortable but not life threatening. Young children and babies and adults with compromised immune systems or who are pregnant need to be taken to a doctor immediately if they get sick. Everyone else, however, can usually recover at home if they know how to treat food poisoning.
When a person is sickened by food, the body’s first response is to get rid of the toxic substance by any means it can. This means a person will typically suffer from vomiting and diarrhea almost immediately after ingesting the bad food. A person can experience these symptoms for up to 48 hours after the bad food was consumed.
In the event that symptoms are so severe that a person is unable to drink water for more than twelve hours, it’s a good idea to see a doctor. In most cases a person can be rehydrated and given drugs to control the nausea. As soon as possible, throw away the food that caused the food poisoning.