By: DR TOROOTI MWIRIGI
Food poisoning occurs when contaminated food is consumed. Food or drinks can be contaminated by infectious agents like parasites, viruses, bacteria, or toxins produced by these microorganisms. Bacteria Escherichia coli commonly known as E. coli and staphylococcus are usually the common culprits of most cases of food poisoning. Other causes may include listeria, campylobacter, salmonella, norovirus, and cryptosporidium parasite, among others.
These harmful microorganisms are mostly present in raw foods like eggs, meat, and chicken, though they can also spread to other types of food. Food poisoning can affect a single person or a group of persons who consumed similar food especially during social events, in cafeterias or restaurants.
Particular groups of people are at a great risk of food poisoning. These include pregnant women, elderly, babies, and people with chronic illnesses. Symptoms of food poisoning can begin within hours of consuming contaminated food. While some types of food poisoning are mild and resolve on their own, other types can be serious requiring medical attention.
My son was recently diagnosed with food poisoning. I was shocked because I he had eaten home cooked food. Where could the problem have come from?
Dear Mama Nyagah,
Food contamination can occur anywhere, at any point, and not just by eating away from home. Certain factors like type of nutrients, time, water, temperature, and the pH of the food determine how fast microorganisms can multiply and cause food poisoning.
Therefore, even when we cook food in our homes, it can still get contaminated. There are several ways in which food can get contaminated. For example, when food is touched with unwashed hands, not cooking food like meat thoroughly, leaving food to stand at warm temperatures for long hours, not refrigerating food at the right temperatures, not reheating previously cooked food adequately, or consuming food that has surpassed its “ sell by” date.
Bacteria can also spread between foods through cross-contamination. Particular foods like raw eggs, seafood, ready-to-eat foods, raw poultry and meat, and unpasteurised milk are more susceptible to contamination if they are properly stored, handled or cooked.
My career is quite involving and as a result, most times I eat outside home. How would I know if I have food poisoning?
Diarrhoea is usually the initial symptom of food poisoning. You may have stomach pain, cramps, headaches, muscle ache, lethargy, nausea, or vomiting. Some types of food poisoning can cause blood or mucus in the stool and a high fever. Symptoms can start any time between few hours and many weeks after consuming contaminated food.
Generally, the symptoms you experience may depend on how healthy one is and the microbe that is causing the illnesses, and they can range from mild to severe. Excessive diarrhoea and vomiting can result into dehydration, which may mean that the body has lost too much of its fluids.
These symptoms can clear on their own with self care but you should see a doctor if symptoms become severe and do not get better within a few days or you experience symptoms of severe dehydration such as rapid heartbeat, sunken eyes, confusion, and too little or no urine. Elderly people, pregnant women, young children, and people with weakened immune system with suspected case of food poisoning should seek attention immediately.
I am four months pregnant and my doctor advised to avoid certain foods as they can cause food poisoning. How would it affect my pregnancy?
Pregnancy is a period of increased demand for nutrients and cravings. However, pregnant women should be cautious of what they eat as some foods can have harmful effects on the growing baby. Pregnant women are at a great risk of developing an infection known as Listeriosis, which is caused by Listeria bacteria. This is because the pregnancy weakens the body’s natural defenses against this bacterium.
Listeria is mainly present if a variety of “ready-to-eat” food products like cheeses, pre-packed sandwiches, and cooked meat. All these food products need to be consumed by the “sell by” dates so as to avoid the risk of infection. Listeriosis during pregnancy is not usually a threat to the health of the mother. But, it can lead to complications of pregnancy and birth, and there is also a risk of miscarriage.
To avoid the risk of food poisoning, pregnant women should avoid certain foods like unpasteurised milk, raw or undercooked eggs or meat or shellfish, and some types of cheeses. Other important measures include hand washing and ensuring that vegetables and fruits are washed before consumption.
KNOW YOUR BODY
Food poisoning can be prevented by ensuring that you maintain high levels of personal and food hygiene during storage, handling, and preparation of food. Observing the following can help prevent growth and multiplication of bacteria and consequently prevent food contamination;
Read food labels before buying and check for “use by” date. This is important because at times smell and appearance of food may not be a sure way of telling if it is safe for consumption. Bacteria that cause food poisoning do not have smell or taste.
When buying food, avoid cans and containers that are leaking, dented or swollen. Also do not buy frozen food that has been left out of the freezer.
Avoid cross-contamination. This can take place when food drips into another, or when bacteria on the hands, utensils, or work surfaces spread to food. After handling raw foods like eggs, meats, or poultry, make sure to wash your hands with soap and water. Also clean knives, cutting boards and other utensils you may have used.
Use separate chopping boards for meat, vegetables, ready-to-eat food and raw foods. Avoid wooden cutting boards as they can harbor food particles and this may make them difficult to clean. During storage, ensure to store ready-to-eat foods and raw foods in separate containers. Cover and store raw meat on the bottom shelf so that it does not come into contact with other foods or drip onto them. Wipe any spills in the refrigerator immediately.
Avoid handling food if you are sick and have stomach problems like vomiting, diarrhea, or have open cuts or sores. This is especially important if the food is for vulnerable persons like infants.
Cook food thoroughly to the right temperatures, especially food from animal sources like dairy and meat so as to kill any harmful microorganisms that may be present. To confirm whether meat is fully cooked, put a knife into its deepest or thickest part. If the juices are clear and no presence of red or pink meat, then it is fully cooked.
Do not eat raw or undercooked eggs and meat. When eating away from home, check first whether the food is well cooked. If undercooked, return it for further cooking and ask for it to be served in a different plate.
Do not drink unpasteurized milk or eat food products made with unpasteurized milk.
When reheating previously cooked food, ensure it is steaming hot. Avoid reheating food more than once.
Refrigerate foods at the correct temperatures to avoid growth and multiplication of harmful microorganisms. Do not leave meat, eggs, poultry and seafood to stand at room temperature for long hours. Store frozen foods immediately you get home from shopping. Cool the leftovers fast and store them in a freezer or refrigerator.
If you are not sure about the freshness of a food, throw it away. Food that has left at room temperature for a long period may have bacteria that cannot be destroyed by cooking temperatures.
Use thawed food promptly and do not refreeze them once they have been totally thawed. This is because harmful microbes develop faster in thawed foods than in fresh foods.
Wash fruits and vegetables, particularly those to be eaten raw thoroughly before eating. Wash vegetables under running water. For vegetables like cabbage, remove the outer-most leaves where microbes may grow.
Wash hands after contact with animals like cats. This is particularly important for pregnant women as it can raise the risk of contracting toxoplasmosis.
Exclusively breastfed babies should continue doing so as breastfeeding is the safest food for infants. This may help reduce the risk of food-borne illnesses as well as other health problems.
SOURCE: DAILY NATION